I’ve been vegetarian for about 5 or so years now, and as I already had some friends who were vegetarian and vegan I had an advantage in knowing what to look out for on packaging to make sure I wasn’t accidentally eating non-veg friendly foods. There are so many types of packaging and it’s not always easy to find necessary description on it. Today I thought I would share some of the surprisingly non-vegetarian foods I have come across, which will hopefully be helpful for anyone thinking of cutting meat out of their diets, or even if you’re cooking for vegetarian friends!
I’d love this to be an ever-growing list, and I’m sure I haven’t captured everything, so please add your contributions to the comments!
Worcestershire Sauce, Curry Pastes & Stir Fry Sauces
Worcestershire sauce is almost always made using anchovies, so unless otherwise labelled it’s best to avoid it. The vast majority of pre-made curry and stir-fry pastes and sauces (including things like laksa pastes) will have fish sauce and/or shrimp paste as part of their ingredients list, so unfortunately aren’t much good either! There are a few brands that don’t use any animal products in their pastes so it’s worth checking the label, although it’s also pretty easy to whip up your own sauce (and it will then be preservative free too!) so I tend to go that approach instead!
Bonito is a type of fish and it’s unfortunately rather commonly found in Japanese cooking. Most miso pastes include bonito, although the Hikari brand of pastes is bonito free (and widely available). Bonito is often used as flakes which get sprinkled on top of dishes like silken tofu at Japanese restaurants, so look out for it on the menu, and check with your waiter, they’re usually more than happy to just leave it off the dish.
Rennet is an enzyme found in the stomach of animals such as cows and sheep and it is used in the production of most cheeses, particularly hard cheeses. Imported parmesan is the worst culprit as for it to be officially labelled as parmesan in Europe it must use rennet, so unfortunately it’s a no-go. It is possible to make plant-based rennet, and it is usually labelled as vegetarian-rennet or microbial-rennet, so check the labelling on your favourite cheeses to be sure. Soft cheeses like cottage cheese, mozzarella and paneer are usually made without any kind of rennet, so they’re a much safer bet (but still, check the labels!).
Gelatin is another animal by-product to be aware of, and unfortunately it pops up almost everywhere. Most people are aware that it is present in foods like marshmellows, jelly and gummy lollies, but it is also often used in things like margarine, as a thickener in low-fat dairy products (full-fat is a better option anyway!), jams and even as a clarifier in some juices. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a definitive way to know whether it will be in all of these products or not (other than things like marshmellows!) so again, you’re going to have to do some label reading!
Isinglass comes from the bladder of fish, and is used in the wine and beer industry as part of the clarification process (sometimes along with gelatin). Thankfully there are alternatives to using isinglass, and many Australian companies have moved to that approach, particularly when it comes to beer. Unfortunately it’s generally impossible to tell from the labels but there are a few apps and websites that have done the hard work for you, so you can look up your favourite brands to be sure. The Vegan is Easy app is a good one, so is the Barnivore website. Sometimes a product will be shown as not-vegan friendly because it includes dairy or honey (such as the Beez Neez beer) so if you’re vegetarian rather than vegan then you can make your own call on those ones.
Red Food Colouring
If you see anything that has been coloured red then it’s definitely worth checking the label to see if cochineal, carmine or E120 are listed. These are all the same thing, and are produced from the cochineal beetle. Yep, they boil the beetle and make the dye from its scales. As it is a ‘natural’ ingredient you will still find it in products labelled with ‘no-artificial colours’ (and they are correct in saying that), but despite being natural it’s not so vegetarian-friendly! Beetroot is a much better option for turning things red in my view!
Lard is made from pig fat and in the past was used as a spread or as a cooking fat. Nowadays it is less popular, although it is still at times used for baking and other uses. Unfortunately it often also turns up in a range of other products such as canned beans (refried beans are the worst offenders), pre-made pastry, canned soups and packet-mix cakes. It will often be labelled as shortening, and unless it says vegetable-shortening then it’s a safe bet that it not vegetarian friendly!
There we have it! I hope this list has been helpful, did you find any of these particularly surprising? As I said, please pop any additions in the comments! Hopefully I haven’t missed anything major, but you never know!