How often have you picked up a seemingly vegan product, only to find that it contains milk ingredients? Did you know that your cereal may have grease from sheep’s wool? Or worse, that your favorite candy might actually be made with crushed up bugs? There is a lot of unsuspecting non-vegan food out there!
Nowadays, finding vegan foods in your local supermarket is a breeze compared to how it was years ago. Many brands proudly display a vegan logo and most companies clearly indicate allergens, which makes scanning labels super easy. The problem lies with hidden ingredients in products that you may not have considered before.
It’s also easy to get into the habit of thinking something is automatically vegan, when it may actually contain animal byproducts. Things like potatoes, soy milk, and peanuts are vegan by default, right? The answer is not necessarily straightforward. But once you know which ingredients and brands to look out for, eating 100% vegan is simple.
If you don’t want a side of fish oil with your morning OJ, then this guide is for you!
18 Obvious Non-Vegan Food Items
Let’s state the obvious first. Non-vegan food includes anything that is made with animal or animal derived products. That includes the following:
- Animal flesh of cows, chickens, lambs, pigs, ducks, fish, seafood, or any other animal.
- Animal products like eggs, milk, and honey, bee pollen, royal jelly.
- Animal derived products like cheese, yogurt, cream, butter, mayo, and gelatin.
If you want to find out more about veganism check out my article on the types of vegans and vegan diets.
Non-Vegan Food – 30 to Watch Out For
1. White Sugar
First on our list of non-vegan food is sugar. Sugar comes from plants so it must be vegan, right? Not necessarily. In some countries, including the US, white cane sugar is filtered using bone char. Bone char comes from animal bones and this process gives the sugar its white color. Even brown sugar has the same problem, as it is simply refined white sugar with molasses added to it.
If you buy organic sugar, this guarantees that bone char is not used. Also, there are many great brands that make organic sugar including Bob’s Red Mill and Trader Joe’s. Similarly, if a sugar is labelled as ‘raw’, ‘unrefined’ or ‘natural’ it is also vegan-friendly. Some sugars in this category include coconut sugar and date sugar .
2. Soy Sauce
Most major soy sauce brands are vegan, including Kikkoman and La Choy soy sauce. Even though Kikkoman was testing some of its ingredients on animals in the past, this has since changed. In the past, some types of soy sauce were traditionally made with fish ingredients. In addition, soy sauce may contain white sugar, which is filtered with bone char. This type of soy sauce is more common in South Asian countries.
You can always opt for Coconut Aminos as a soy sauce alternative, which is always vegan.
3. Honey – Non-vegan Food
Honey is a food item that many people think is vegan because it comes from nature. The truth is that honeybees are exploited, kept in captivity, and bred purely so humans can take their honey. The Vegan Society states that honey does not align with their definition of veganism, and who are we to argue with them?
For more info on why honey isn’t vegan check out my article!
4. Breakfast Cereal
One of the most recent and controversial revelations in the vegan world is that your cereal might contain sheep grease! Yes, the vitamin D3 that is used to fortify many major breakfast cereals in the US is derived from lanolin. Lanolin is an oil that comes from sheep’s wool and is often found in cosmetics. This means that cereals from Kellogg’s and General Mills which contain D3 are not suitable for vegans.
In addition, this D3 issue seems to mainly apply to the US.
5. Red Food Dye
Red foods made with artificial coloring often contain carmine. Carmine comes from crushed up beetles and can also be labelled as ‘cochineal extract’, ‘E120’ or ‘red 4’. This ingredient is often found in makeup, juice, and more commonly – candy. Several years ago, Starbucks even came under fire for using carmine in its Frappuccinos and was forced to find a plant-based alternative.
You can choose some PETA-approved vegan candy like YumEarth Fruit Snacks, Airheads, or Red Vines if you’re worried about carmine. Better yet, opt for products that use natural red dyes from beets and strawberries.
6. Gummy Bears
Who doesn’t love gummy bears? Unfortunately, most of the major gummy brands like Haribo use gelatin as an ingredient and are 100% a non-vegan food. Gelatin comes from boiling bones, cartilage, skin, and other body parts of slaughtered animals. This means that most gummy bears aren’t even vegetarian!
Fortunately, it’s easy to find vegan gummies that are made from plant ingredients like pectin and agar agar. Some popular brands include Surf Sweets, Annie’s Organic Homegrown Fruit Snacks, and Squish Candies.
Potato chips and tortilla chips seemingly appear to be vegan, but they sometimes contain milk ingredients. This is especially true for flavored chips like Pringles Sour Cream & Onion, Lay’s Kettle Cooked Sea Salt & Vinegar, and Nacho Flavored Doritos. Even some brands’ plain chip varieties contain milk!
8. Soy Milk
Soy milk is made from soybeans, so we assume that it must be vegan. The truth is that although most soy milks are vegan, some are not. For example, some varieties of Lactasoy in Thailand and Vitasoy in Hong Kong contain dairy ingredients. Some flavors of Kikkoman soy milk in Japan contain honey or animal-sourced vitamin D. There’s even a Soy Latte from Natural Lawson in Japan that contains pig fat ingredients in the manufacturing process, which is not indicated on the label.
9. Soy Cheese
Just like soy milk, soy cheese can actually contain milk-derived ingredients. You should avoid any soy cheese that contains casein, which is lactose-free but is still a milk protein. Some soy cheese companies like Okanagan use it because it makes the product melt like real cheese.
Go Veggie, which does make several kinds of vegan cheese, also makes lactose-free cheese which is not vegan and has similar packaging. The best thing is to stick with an all-vegan cheese company, such as Follow Your Heart or Field Roast Chao.
10. Fruit Juices
As a recent controversy, some types of fruit juice have been found to contain animal ingredients. Tropicana Heart Healthy Orange Juice, for example, contains fish oil and gelatin as an added source of omega-3. Minute Maid juices are fortified with vitamin D3 from sheep’s wool, and many varieties contain carmine from crushed up beetles.
The good news is there is an abundance of vegan-friendly juices all over the world. Make sure you read the ingredients label (especially with orange juice), or better yet, make your own fresh juice at home.
Sprinkles, although small and seemingly innocent, can actually be a minefield for vegans. The main ingredient to watch out for is confectioner’s glaze (also known as shellac) which is made from insects. Other possible non-vegan trace ingredients can include white sugar, red food dye, dairy, and gelatin. Plus, sprinkles can appear in many foods like cookies, cakes, and even some loose-leaf teas.
12. Graham Crackers
Who doesn’t love a good s’more around the campfire? The reality is that graham crackers sometimes contain honey. This includes graham cracker crumbs and pie crusts. A good idea is to avoid brands like Honey Maid and double check the label on Annie’s Homegrown.
Marshmallows, just like gummy bears, are usually made with gelatin. Unless you buy specific vegan marshmallows like Dandies, you can kiss your campfire marshmallows goodbye! The great news is that vegan marshmallows are basically identical to the regular variety – they just don’t contain gelatin.
14. Dark Chocolate
Most people assume that only milk chocolate contains milk, and that dark chocolate is a safe bet. While this is generally true, some dark chocolate does contain milk. A general rule of thumb is that the darker percentage of chocolate, the less chance of it containing milk ingredients.
15. Fake Meats
With meat-free burgers being pushed into the spotlight, everyone is hopping on the fake meat train. The problem is that not all fake meats are vegan. Brands like Quorn and Morningstar Farms use egg whites in some of their products. Plus, huge meat corporations like Tyson Foods are attempting to jump on the plant-based burger train. Their Raised and Rooted brand makes burgers that are half meat, half plant-based protein, and therefore not at all vegan.
16. Vegetarian Curry
Vegetarian foods are sometimes vegan by default, or not vegetarian at all. For example, in Thailand many ‘vegetarian’ curries are actually made with fish ingredients like shrimp paste. A lot of curry sauces and pastes in your local supermarket likely contain fish ingredients too.
In India, many dishes, including vegetarian curries, are made using a type of clarified butter called ‘ghee.’ Luckily, most restaurants can swap the ghee for oil upon request.
If you want to make vegan curry at home, opt for Maesri Curry Pastes or another brand that offers vegan curry paste.
17. Instant Cake Mixes
Instant cake mixes are often purchased by vegans, who omit the eggs and use plant-based milk when preparing a cake. One thing to look out for, however, is lard. Lard is animal fat and can sometimes be hidden in seemingly innocent boxes of cake mix.
Luckily, many varieties of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines cake mixes (and frostings!) are vegan by default. Just make sure to read the labels carefully.
18. Flavored Coffee Syrups
Although most major coffee chains offer plant-based milks, the drink you order may not actually be vegan. Some coffee syrups and powders contain milk ingredients, such as the famous Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks in the US and the White Chocolate Mocha. As a general rule, most clear flavored syrups are usually vegan. It’s the thick colored syrups that you need to watch out for.
Another thing to double check is the drizzle that is sometimes put on top of drinks, which often contains milk ingredients. To avoid this issue completely, hit up your local vegan coffee shop.
19. Pesto Sauce
Traditional pesto sauce is made with parmesan cheese, which in itself is not even vegetarian! This includes popular brands like Classico and Barilla. Sometimes, sun-dried tomato flavors can accidentally be vegan in supermarkets, compared to most traditional basil pesto varieties.
20. Fruit Encased in Wax
If you’ve ever wondered why fruits look so perfect and shiny in supermarkets, it’s likely because they’re covered in wax. And the wax itself is usually not vegan! Apples, oranges, and lemons (among other fruits) may contain wax with shellac or beeswax from insects. Some restaurant chains in the UK like Pizza Express have been criticized for having fruits that are unsuitable for vegans for this very reason.
To avoid this, you can buy fruits from farmers’ markets, which are less likely to contain wax. And if it’s completely unavoidable, you can remove wax from fruit with hot water.
21. Non-Dairy Creamers
Even if a creamer is labelled as non-dairy, it may still contain casein, which is a milk ingredient. This is particularly common on airplanes or in hotels, even if you’ve requested a vegan meal. When shopping at a supermarket, read the ingredients carefully.
You can also buy delicious vegan creamers from trusted vegan brands like Silk, Ripple Foods, or Califia Farms. With vegan non-dairy creamers widely available these days, this is an easy problem to avoid.
Most people automatically assume bread is vegan, but this isn’t always the case. Some breads contain milk and eggs, which cause the bread to have a fluffier appearance and texture. This is especially common in countries like South Korea and Japan. Other breads may contain cheese or honey, too. Indian-style breads like naan can sometimes have butter. Always check the label or ask to make sure your bread is vegan.
23. Miso Soup
Traditional miso soup contains dashi, a type of fish broth that is a common ingredient in many Japanese dishes. If you’re dining at a Japanese restaurant, you might assume the miso soup is vegan when it’s actually not. Even pre-packaged miso soup can contain fish ingredients. Some great vegan miso soup brands include Eden and Edward & Sons.
24. French Fries
Most of the time, French Fries are vegan – they’re just potatoes after all! The problem lies with the oil that they’re cooked in. McDonald’s fries in the US are still cooked in beef fat, unfortunately. There are quite a few fast food chains, however, that cook their fries in vegetable oil. These include Burger King, In-N-Out Burger, and White Castle among others.
25. Pasta – Non-vegan Food to Watch Out For!
The majority of dried pasta you’ll find in your local supermarket is vegan, but it’s the fresh pasta you have to watch out for. Traditional fresh Italian pasta is made with eggs, so you’ll have to check the ingredients carefully. Many stuffed pasta varieties like tortellini and ravioli also contain cheese. Instead, choose some vegan stuffed pasta such as Kite Hill Mushroom Ravioli or Rising Moon Butternut Squash Ravioli, which are equally as delicious!
26. Refried Beans – Hidden Lard in this Non-Vegan Food
Beans are a great plant-based source of protein, but not all beans are vegan. Refried beans, in particular, often contain lard. Fortunately, many companies have labelled the lard-free varieties as vegetarian, which makes shopping down the canned aisle easier. Old El Paso, Rosarita, and Amy’s Organic all make clearly labelled vegetarian refried beans.
27. Chewing Gum
Gum is something that you might not even think of, as far as ingredients go. Gelatin, however, is an ingredient that you’ll find in chewing gum from brands like Trident and Orbit. Thankfully, there are many accidental vegan gum brands like Juicy Fruit and Eclipse. PUR gum is also vegan and uses the natural sweetener xylitol.
Nuts, including peanuts, are often a staple for many vegans and provide a great source of protein. Oddly enough, Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts actually contain gelatin, which definitely makes them unsuitable for vegans. The reason for gelatin being used is so that the spices can stick to the peanuts. Fortunately, this seems to be an exception in the peanut world, but always double check the ingredients. Honey might also appear in some flavored varieties.
29. Sauces – Worcestershire, Pad Thai Sauce, BBQ Sauce….
Some of the most popular sauces that seemingly appear vegan, may contain animal ingredients. For example, Pad Thai sauce often contains fish ingredients. Barbecue sauce can contain fish, honey, or sugar filtered with bone char. Worcestershire sauce traditionally is made with anchovies or fish sauce.
Some great brands that offer vegan sauces do exist, thankfully. Try Organicville Original BBQ Sauce or The Wizard’s Organic Gluten Free Vegan Worcestershire Sauce.
Most alcoholic drinks don’t usually contain your standard non-vegan ingredients like milk, eggs, or meat (but some do). It’s actually the filtering process that usually makes alcohol non-vegan. Ingredients like isinglass (fish bladders), gelatin, and egg whites are just some of the components used in the manufacturing process of beers and wines. The worst part is that companies are not legally required to list these ingredients on the labels.
Luckily, there are some companies like Vegan Wines and Sierra Nevada which are 100% vegan. Plus, the demand for vegan alcohol is soaring. Huge companies like Guinness have stopped using isinglass in their brewing process. Baileys has even released an almond milk version of their famous Irish Cream liqueur that vegans can enjoy too.
For more info on why alcohol might not be vegan check out my article!
Final Thoughts on Non-vegan Food
So, there you have it! Hopefully you’ll now be an expert and know exactly which ingredients to look out for on your next shopping trip. The good news is that many companies are feeling pressure to remove unnecessary animal-derived ingredients from their products. This will make food shopping even easier for vegans going forward.
Which food items surprised you the most? Do you have any other suggestions to add to this list? Let us know in the comments!