Hidden Ingredients

Surely if there’s no meat, dairy or eggs then it’s vegan?

One thing that can throw new vegans off when food shopping, is hidden ingredients. You find a new product, check the ingredients on the back and nothing sticks out as being non-vegan. Then you give it a quick google and find out it’s unsuitable due to something obscure!

Of course, you can check foods for a ‘vegan’ label, but some brands don’t use them at all. This means you could be missing out on potential vegan eats! Read on to find out about the most common hidden ingredients in our food, and other sneaky things to look out for.

‘Free From’ Aisle

The ‘free from’ section of a supermarket can be vegan heaven. Cakes, sauces, chocolate, cheese and more! Targeting this section when shopping can make life a lot easier. But do be mindful of the meaning of ‘free from’. These items still need to be checked over for vegan

woman browsing free from aisle in supermarket

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris

labelling or non-vegan ingredients. Products can simply be free from one allergen, such as gluten, eggs, or milk. Some even contain meat! For example, a common brand in the free from refrigerated section is Arla Lactofree. These products are NOT vegan, the company simply uses lactose-free milk. However, some exclusively vegan brands are Violife, Tofurkey, Alpro and Koko. Vegan Quorn products are also clearly labelled with big green writing.

Key points: Free from sections are a great stop for vegan finds. However, just be mindful that every item isn’t vegan. Be sure to check free from cake and bread for eggs, dairy-free products for eggs, and gluten-free products for meat, eggs AND dairy.

Bee Products

Vegans don’t consume any animal by-products, and bees are no exception. Many people think that honey bees produce their honey for humans, but that isn’t true. Honey is made by bees, FOR bees. When we harvest it, it affects the well-being of the hive, and the bees health – less nutrition for them, especially in colder weather. Honey is an energy source for bees, and without it, they simply starve. Each bee produces far less than a teaspoon of honey in its entire life, so you can imagine why it’s extremely valuable to them.

If that wasn’t enough, mass breeding of honey bees affects the populations of other insects, and 95% of honey is imported from abroad, having a huge carbon footprint. Commercial beekeepers want to produce as much as honey as possible, leading to poor bee health, a narrow gene pool, increased disease, and wing clipping. As vegans are against animal exploitation, all bee-related products (not just honey) are off the menu.

bees in hive making honey

If the above has persuaded you to eat bee-free, great! Bee ingredients you may spot on labels are: honey, bee pollen, beeswax (which is actually chewed up bee sweat mixed with pollen!), royal jelly, propolis, mead (alcohol), nectar, and bee venom. You can start by avoiding these.

Don’t be disheartened by cutting out foods. Some food that has honey in the name/description, is actually vegan. This is because it’s merely honey flavoured. Honeycomb can be made with syrup, and cereals can contain maple syrup or agave nectar instead. So always check the ingredients if you’re unsure. If you like using honey in baking, try molasses, agave nectar, or maple syrup instead. Maple syrup is particularly good in a hot toddy or tea!

You can also become familiar with the foods that are likely to contain bee-related products. For example, beeswax can be found in sweets and honey in granola, but you’re unlikely to find it in meat replacement products or bread.

E Numbers

This is probably the trickiest group of hidden ingredients to navigate. They are basically a combination of numbers, code names for food additives. Some are vegan, and some aren’t. It can seem confusing, but it doesn’t take long to remember the common non-vegan E numbers to avoid.

When you’re first shopping, you can take this list with you, or just make a note of non-vegan E numbers. If in doubt, don’t forget to look for that big vegan label on the packaging.

Name Contents Common Uses
E120 Cochineal or Carmine – pigment from crushed insects Food colouring, especially in sweets and cosmetics
E322 Lecithin – can be from soya or eggs, so check An emulsifier in many foods
E422 Glycerol – can be vegan or from animal fat, so check A sweetener in food and drink
E471 Mono/diglycerides of fatty acids – can be from animal fat, so check Snacks, bread
E542 Edible Bone Phosphate – from pig or cattle bones Toothpaste, cosmetics, and anti-caking in food
E631 Disodium Inosinate – can be from meat, fish or tapioca starch, so check A flavour enhancer in snacks
E901 Beeswax To glaze foods, in candles and cosmetics
E904 Shellac – resin from the lac beetle To wax fruits and in sweets
E920 L-Cysteine (amino acid), often from poultry feathers Bread and other baked goods, biscuits.

Other Hidden Ingredients

Not every ingredient fits nicely into a category – there are a few sneaky ones out there! Watch out for these:

  • Gelatin – comes from the skin/bones/connective tissue of pigs and cattle. It is used as a thickener and often seen in jelly and sweets.
  • Whey, casein and lactose – all derived from dairy, and found in cheese and processed foods. Whey is particularly common in protein powders.
  • Isinglass – taken from fish bladders, and usually seen in alcohol.gelatin / gelatine sweets
  • Omega-3 – most come from fish, although you can get supplements from algae too. Some products state ‘enriched by Omega-3’ so you’ll need to check the source.
  • Vitamin D3 – taken from either lanolin (in sheep’s wool) or fish oil, although there is a rarer vegan alternative from lichen. If supplementing with D3, look for a clearly labelled vegan version.
  • Animal fat – watch out for foods coated in animal fat rather than plant-based oils. This is particularly common in ready meals, roast potatoes and fries.
  • Batter and Breadcrumbs – sometimes uses eggs so check the ingredients. Think onion rings!
  • Refined sugar – often lightened with bone char. White/granulated sugar is usually produced in this way. It’s terrible for your health anyway, so why not try out an alternative such as stevia, coconut sugar or maple syrup?
  • Natural Flavourings – can come from anywhere! One is castoreum, which comes from the secretions of beavers’ anal scent glands – yuk! Look out for this particular one in sweets, and always check ingredients/with manufacturers if a product states ‘natural flavourings’.

NB: you may have seen the wording ‘may contain‘ eggs/milk etc underneath the ingredients list. This is simply a warning that the product was made in the same factory as other foods containing them. For example, if an item says ‘may contain milk’, it is still safe for vegans to eat (as long as the actual ingredients are ok!), but was present in the same factory.

No time for reading labels? Try out the SpoonGuru app! You can use it to scan a barcode, and it will tell you if there’s anything you should avoid.

Please don’t worry about these things too much when starting out – it can be overwhelming! Most long-time vegans haven’t memorised e-numbers off by heart – we rely on trusty google or ‘vegan’ labelling to help us out. If you’re in a hurry, that vegan label can be a lifesaver. Many allergens are also in bold on the ingredients list by law, so they stand out. They are good to be aware of. If you slip up, learn from it and move on.

To avoid these hidden ingredients, why not try making your own meals from fresh ingredients? Our recipe page can help with some simple meals, for even the most amateur chef.

And as always… questions below.

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This is something that's key as a new vegan. In fact, it's pretty much a life-saver for me still 6 years later!

If you’re THAT person – the one who makes dinner plans AFTER they arrive home from work, who is likely to fall off the vegan wagon through lack of organisation... I have some great ideas for you! 
1. Slow cookers also save us from ‘hanger’. Make use of one! Pop a casserole or curry in before you leave the house, so dinner is ready when you’re home. 

2. Make extra portions of meals to freeze, so you have your own ready meals on lazy days. 

3. Do online shops – you can filter for vegan foods at most supermarkets now and have them delivered to your door. You can't blame an empty fridge for eating non-vegan food.

4. If you’re a takeaway fiend, know what the vegan options are beforehand. This works well at restaurants too – know your choices before you go! Preparation is your friend.

5. Have a ring binder with easy, lazy recipes and meal ideas inside. This can be your go-to for inspiration when you're busy and tired. I have one that I use several times a week. I even have sections for smoothies, salads, dinners and desserts.

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It doesn’t have to be a week’s worth of complex meals, just a few days ahead. Choose easy options when you know you’re home late, and use weekends for new recipe experimentation. 

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