When I first went vegan over 12 years ago, I had no idea how to actually check if foods at the store were vegan. I found a list of animal ingredients online that was 21 pages long… It was overwhelming. But over the years, I realized it’s actually simple to check if foods are vegan.
How to check if food is vegan:
- Scan the package for “vegan” or the V symbol.
- Check the allergen warnings for milk or eggs.
- Scan the ingredients list from top to bottom.
These three steps will allow you to quickly check any food label to see if it’s vegan. I think learning this skill is important for anyone who wants to be a long-term vegan. I’ll go over each step in more detail below, with examples!
If you absolutely can’t be bothered to read ingredients lists, I’ll also include reviews of two mobile apps that allow you to check if foods are vegan. That’s at the end of the article!
1. Scan the package for “vegan” or the V symbol.
Personally, I will just trust a package if it says “vegan” on it. My checking stops there! I’ve got my answer, and I can move on.
But it’s not always written out as “VEGAN” in big letters. You should know the “certified vegan” V symbol. It’s a V in a heart, as shown below.
Occasionally, you may also see variations on this V symbol in other countries or just with companies that choose to use their own logos. I say just trust them. Probably you could sue them later if it turns out they were lying, but I doubt they would risk that.
2. Check the allergen warnings for milk or eggs.
The allergen warning will usually be in bold text at the end of the ingredients list (at least in the U.S.). It will often say “CONTAINS MILK INGREDIENTS” in bold. So this is a very quick to check for those ingredients.
Sometimes other animal ingredients will be included in the allergen warning, too, such as “SHELLFISH.”
Once you find an animal ingredient, the search is over. So if the allergen warning says it contains milk, just put the product back and check the next one. There’s no need to look at the rest of the ingredients or dwell on it.
Just be binary about it: “Contains milk ingredients? Too bad, maybe the next one won’t.” This binary approach will help you be quick and efficient.
What If the Product It Says It “May Contain” Animal Ingredients?
“May contain milk ingredients” just means that the product was produced in a facility that also produces products containing milk. So there is a possibility of contamination. This warning is mostly for people with severe allergies to even small amounts of an ingredient.
When a product “may contain” animal ingredients, personally I still consider it vegan, and I go ahead and eat it. Pretty much every vegan agrees that it is okay to eat these products.
Many small, vegan-friendly companies have to get their products made in facilities that also work with other food companies that are not specifically vegan. And other big companies may produce a line of vegan products and other non-vegan products. I think we should support the vegan products offered by these companies.
It’s not likely to contain any animal ingredients, and even if it did, I don’t think it sends any useful signal to companies to boycott these foods. Most vegans are fine with eating these foods, and I recommend that you be fine with it, too.
Update: I wrote a blog post that goes a bit deeper into this issue if it still concerns you: “What Does ‘May Contain Milk’ Mean?”
3. Scan the ingredients list from top to bottom.
This is definitely the most intimidating step, but it’s actually not very hard. Once you are accustomed to it, you will be amazed how quickly you can read food labels and check if it’s vegan. Your brain becomes trained to find non-vegan ingredients, and they jump out at you.
If you really don’t want to learn to read ingredients lists, you can scroll down for apps to help you scan products. But if you’re planning to be vegan long-term, I recommend learning this simple skill. You never know when an app might fail you.
Meat Stuff to Notice when Scanning for Non-vegan Ingredients
Milk and eggs already should have been identified by the allergen warning. But most meat products are not. So that’s mostly what you’re checking for here.
Beef, chicken, pork, ham, bacon, lamb, duck, veal, fish… There are a lot of variations, so I’m not going to list them all here. Your common sense will catch most of these non-vegan ingredients. “Beef liver” and “fish oil,” for example—obviously not vegan.
Also, be aware of lard (animal fat) and similar things. Tallow is another word for it (tallow is used in a lot of soap).
What About Honey—Is It Vegan?
Honey is a loaded question for vegans. I personally don’t consider honey to be vegan, and I try not to eat it. But you can decide for yourself. Some of my vegan friends have decided for themselves that they’re okay with small amounts of honey in whole wheat bread and stuff like that.
Here are the issues to consider with regard to whether honey is vegan:
• Bees are animals, so honey is an animal product.
• Do bees feel pain or suffer from honey farming? I’ve heard that insect pain is a complex topic. You can do your own research.
• Is only the excess honey taken from the bees? Or are the bees forced to subsist on corn syrup or processed sugar after the beekeeper takes all their honey? (This may differ based on which brand of honey you buy.)
• Will boycotting honey alienate the people around you from becoming vegan, by making it seem too difficult or obsessive?
Decide for yourself about honey. For me, I have occasionally let honey slide if I’m eating some whole-grain bread from a friend’s house and I don’t want to be super picky. But I usually do avoid honey because I feel bad about taking honey away from bees that spent so long working hard to make it.
I read a statistic that each bee only creates 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime, and that 2 million flowers have to be visited in order to make a pound of honey. It’s clearly a lot of work that bees do to make honey, and they make it to be their food source through the winter. So to me, it does feel wrong to take it from them.
What About All Those Other Animal Byproducts and Complicated Words?
When I first went vegan over 10 years ago, I thought I needed to avoid every single animal byproduct, even in the smallest amount. I found a list of animal-derived ingredients online, and I printed it out. It was 21 pages! Do you need to memorize a list like that? No.
Vegans disagree with each other when it comes to various animal byproducts you should boycott. Don’t feel pressured by any dogma. You can decide for yourself exactly where to draw lines for yourself.
My general rule is this: If it’s always made from animals, I try to avoid it. If it might be made from animals but it might also be made from plants and the package doesn’t specify the source, I don’t worry about it. That’s the line I usually draw. And sometimes I’ll be a little lazy. I don’t have huge lists of ingredients memorized. I just look for the common ones.
If you want to be more pure with your vegan diet, you can memorize longer ingredient lists, and you can contact companies to ask where they source their ingredients. But I don’t think it makes a huge difference. Boycotting meat, dairy, and eggs is probably 99% of the impact you can have with a vegan diet. So don’t obsess over the last 1% too much.
If you want to be even more chill about your veganism than I am, that’s fine, too. Some vegans don’t worry at all about byproduct ingredients or honey, or they’re even flexible about meat, dairy, and eggs, too. I think that’s fine if it feels right to you.
Common Animal Byproduct Ingredients That You May See
Here is a list of the more common ingredients you will see called into question by vegans. I’m including my personal rule about whether I eat it or not, but you can feel free to make a different decision. Sometimes, I’m honestly not confident about my own decision:
• Gelatin: I don’t eat it. Gelatin is made from boiling animal skin, cartilage, bones, etc. It’s a big ingredient in Jello, but it’s also in some frosted food products (Pop-Tarts and Frosted Mini-Wheats).
• Whey, Casein, and Lactose: I don’t eat them. These are milk ingredients or dairy-related, usually included in the allergen warning. Whey can especially be present in large amounts.
• Bone char and bone meal: I don’t eat it. The name is a clear signal on this one. (That said, some sugar is refined using bone char, and I personally don’t worry about avoiding those sugars.)
• Mono- and diglycerides: I’m okay with these. They can come from animals, but we don’t know from looking at the label.
• Natural flavors: I’m okay with it. It can come from animals, but unless I specifically know that, I don’t worry about it.
• Vitamin D3 or Cholecalciferol: I’m okay with it. Usually, D3 (cholecalciferol) is from animal sources, while D2 (ergocalciferol) is vegan. But lately, vegan D3 made from lichen is becoming more widely available, so I no longer avoid D3 as a rule.
• Shellac: I don’t see it listed often, but I’d probably avoid it. It’s made from bug excretions, and it’s like a wax used to coat hard candies and pills.
• Carmine: I don’t see it listed often, but I’d probably avoid it. It’s a red dye made from crushed up insects. I think I’ve eaten it accidentally in red velvet cake mix that was otherwise vegan. (It’s also called carminic acid or cochineal.)
• Albumen: I don’t see it listed often, but I’d probably avoid it. It’s another name for egg whites.
Note that “lactic acid” sounds like it would be a dairy product, but it’s usually made from plants. Actually, I wrote a whole post about why lactic acid is vegan.
Are Probiotics Supplements Vegan If They Were Fermented with Dairy?
I recently came across a probiotics supplement that specifically stated that the probiotics were cultured with dairy. The dairy gets consumed in the fermentation process, so it’s not in the final product.
Most vegans would say this product is not vegan. As I emphasize in various posts on this site, you should decide for yourself where you draw lines with your vegan diet.
Take note, however, that many probiotics are vegan, as I covered in my blog post on whether Lactobacillus is vegan.
Side note: If you want a great fully vegan probiotic supplement, here is the one I recommend (Amazon link). It has 20 billion CFUs per serving, from 12 vegan strains of probiotics. It’s phenomenal. Go read the reviews on Amazon—many people have had great results with it!
Mobile Apps That Check If Foods Are Vegan
As of May 2019 when I wrote this post, I tested out two of the most popular vegan apps that allow you to scan products to check whether they are vegan. These apps were “Vegan Pocket” and “Is It Vegan?” I see major potential in both of them, but I also found major weaknesses in both.
Overall, between these two apps, I prefer “Vegan Pocket,” but neither fully replaces the ability to read packages yourself as a vegan. I’ll explain why.
Review of the “Is It Vegan” App
One of the awesome things that the “Is It Vegan” app does is that it tells you exactly which ingredients in that product aren’t vegan or are possibly not vegan.
This feature can potentially allow you to learn over time—you’ll keep seeing the same ingredients being listed for why the product isn’t vegan. Then you may remember that ingredient even without using the app. That’s a great feature.
I also love that the “Is It Vegan” app acknowledges the ambiguity in some products. It has a meter that ranges from green to red, from definitely-not-vegan to definitely-vegan and everywhere in between.
The very big downside I experienced with the “Is It Vegan” app, as of May 2019, was that the free version of the app included a ridiculous, horrible amount of advertisements. I would scan a food product, and then, before I could see whether the product was vegan, a 5-second advertisement would pop up on the screen.
Sometimes, there would be multiple advertisements in a row before I could even see if the product was vegan. This completely ruins the utility of the free version of the app, as this is an app that you want to be able to use quickly in the supermarket. If the app requires me to wait 5 seconds, I might as well be reading the ingredients myself.
If you buy the premium version of the “Is It Vegan” app, then I expect that the ads would no longer be a problem. So that could solve that problem. But I was too irritated by the ads on the free version to even consider giving them any money for the premium version.
One other major problem exists with the “Is It Vegan” app, and this is also a problem with the “Vegan Pocket” app: Not enough foods are in the database. You can check a decent amount of foods, but it’s not going to have every brand of every product, of course. So you’re going to run into some foods where the app just doesn’t have any data to give you.
Review of the “Vegan Pocket” App
Vegan Pocket uses a whole different model than the “Is It Vegan” app. “Is It Vegan” cites specific ingredients for why the food is vegan or not. But for most foods in the Vegan Pocket app, it merely shows you the number of users who have voted on whether that food is vegan or not.
I actually think it’s pretty clever to crowdsource the collective knowledge of vegans to build a database of whether foods are vegan or not. It’s practical and helpful. But there are still some downsides to this approach.
Since you aren’t seeing any explanation of why a given food is vegan, you’re not learning to recognize vegan ingredients versus non-vegan ingredients over time. You just stay dependent on the app.
And then, as of May 2019, there are still plenty of products not in the database at all. The more popular brands of food in my house had about 30 votes for whether or not they were vegan, but most of the off-brand products only had a couple of votes, or they weren’t in the database at all.
But it was also fun to help add foods to the Vegan Pocket database. It felt like I was helping out other vegans, which was fun. And there were no obnoxious advertisements on the app. So I found it to be much more enjoyable to use than the “Is It Vegan” app overall.
Vegan Apps Can’t Replace the Ability to Read Labels
Because of the small databases in both of these apps, and just the fact that sometimes you’ll be eating from local vendors or other sources without a barcode and no ability to scan, these apps can never fully replace the skill of label reading as a vegan.
Therefore, I recommend if you’re going to be a long-term vegan, invest some time in reading labels. Trust me, you will get much, much faster than you are at the beginning. Follow the three-step process I laid out above, and you will get super quick at checking if foods are vegan.
Why Reading Your Food Labels Is Awesome
On a closing note, I wanted to emphasize that it’s pretty cool to be aware of every ingredient in your food.
It’s cool to actually be screening your food so you are more aware of what you are putting into your body. Vegans do it for a very specific reason, but it’s a positive practice that I think more people should do in general.
So invest a little time into figuring out this art of vegan label reading. Even if you decide to try out some vegan scanning apps, too, label-reading is a good skill to have.
Trust me when I say that you will get much much faster at label-reading over time. It’s really second-nature to an experienced vegan, and it doesn’t take much time at all.
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).
2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.
If you found this guide helpful and want to keep it on hand, save the Pin below to your Pinterest “vegan guides” or “plant-based diet” board!