Companies and manufacturers are responding to the demand for vegan products with everything from cream cheese to creme eggs. Vegans have never had it so good! It’s just about knowing what to look for when you’re out and about with your shopping basket, says Sarah Hoyle.
Searching for the sunflower
Do you often find yourself wandering through the supermarket aisle staring blankly at a label, trying to convince yourself that you’re happy with the ingredients list before placing your desired item inconspicuously back on the shelf, hoping that nobody has noticed? You’re not alone. Though there are 18,000 products registered with the Vegan Trademark (Ed. - as of March 2021 there were over 48,000 products registered with The Vegan Society), I bet for many of you there are other items on your shopping list that still cause some confusion. Until some supermarkets and manufacturers help us out a bit more with adequate (and correct!) labelling, vegans will continue to face this shopping dilemma.
Even the most meticulous reader can make mistakes, especially when the most unassuming products turn out not to be vegan. E numbers in bread, silk in shampoo, pearls in deodorant, Vitamin D3 in cereal, glycerine in shower gel...it can be a bit overwhelming. Did you know that apples can be coated with shellac after they have been cleaned? And, just in case your soya milk isn’t ‘milky’ enough, some manufacturers have even been known to add whey powder to it! But don’t despair. Realising that it was taking me three hours to do my weekly shop, I decided to educate myself on which ingredients are vegan-friendly, and which are not. I’d like to share my findings with you, in the hope that it might help you to finish your shopping before the store closes.
How to avoid buying things that aren’t suitable for vegans
Use allergy advice as a guide
Under EU Food Information to Consumers 2011 regulation, companies must specify exactly which allergens are in a product. Not only do companies operating in the EU have to state which commonly-named allergens (i.e. 'milk') are contained within the product, these allergens have to stand out in some way: you may find them in bold, or underlined. While this will not cover you for ingredients like honey and egg lecithin, it at least identifies the usual suspects. Very similar regulations operate in Australia, Canada and the USA.
Buy Trademarked products
The Vegan Society trademark team diligently checks every ingredient to ensure the product meets the Society’s criteria. You can shop for over 18,000* Trademarked products with complete confidence.
Do your homework
A quick internet search can prove fruitful, or you can ask manufacturers directly if you are unsure. Many companies have a statement on their website or can provide a list. There are also apps available for smartphones such as Is It Vegan? Remember that there are certain 'rules' to buying vegan-friendly too. For example, juice containing lots of pulp is less likely to have been filtered with animal ingredients. Moreover, organic citrus fruits such as lemons are likely to be waxed with shellac for a 'natural' finish, meaning non-organic may be safer. However only fruit marked as unwaxed will be safe, so do ask in-store to find out more. And don't forget that unless the Vitamin D in cereal is specified as D2 or Vitashine (the only plant-based D3) it is likely to be from lanolin. This is what unfortunately makes all Kellog's cereals not vegan-friendly.
Ask your friends
Join a vegan group in your area through our Local Contacts. Share what you eat, experiment with new ideas or support local vegan-friendly restaurants together. I’ve made some jaw-dropping discoveries while eating with friends.
E numbers are code names for food additives, and they can seem confusing to the untrained eye. But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of them. Here are a few to remember:
|E Number||What is it?||Uses||Action to take|
|E120||Cochineal (another name for carminic acid, a pigment taken from the abdomen)||Food colouring and cosmetics||Avoid|
|Lecithin (can be made from soya or, less commonly, from eggs)||Emulsifier used in wide range of foods||Check the label for the Vegan Trademark or contact supplier|
|Glycerol (is mainly plant-based but there are still instances of it being derived from animal fat)||Sweetener and solvent used in wide range of foods, beverages and cosmetics||Check the label for the Vegan Trademark or contact supplier|
|E542||Edible Bone Phosphate (a product made from the bones of cattle or pigs)||Cosmetics, toothpaste, nutritional supplement and anti-caking agent||Avoid|
|E631||Disodium Inosinate (can be produced from meat, fish or tapioca starch)||Flavour enhancer often found in snack foods||Check the label for the Vegan Trademark or contact supplier|
|E901||Beeswax||Glazing agent, candles, confectionary, comestics like moisturisers or lip products||Avoid|
|E904||Shellac (derived from the lac beetle)||Furniture polish, glazing agents, confectionary||Avoid|
|E471||Mono and di-glycerides of fatty acids (sometimes derived from animal fats)||Crisps, bread, dairy-free spread||Check the label for the Vegan Trademark or contact supplier|
|E920||An amino acid, also known as L-Cysteine||Bread, biscuits, wraps||Check the label for the Vegan Trademark or contact supplier|
Shopping at the supermarket
In the UK, supermarkets such as the Co-operative, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco usually label their own brand packaging quite well. It is, at the present time, harder to find supermarket branded products labelled ‘vegan’ at either Asda or Morrison’s. Vegan Society Trademarked products are widely available online and at most supermarkets and health food stores, including Holland and Barrett: the latter offer a 10% discount to Vegan Society members too. Beware of products generally targeted at allergy sufferers, such as the 'Free From' sections; these products aren’t automatically vegan. I’ve known people to pick up the ‘free from chicken nuggets’, expecting meat alternatives but instead finding gluten-free versions of the real thing. That said, I’ve been pleased to find vegan-friendly biscuits and chocolate in these sections with little effort.
Look out for the ‘V’ symbol
Living in a non-vegan world, all that we can do is try to be vegan as far as is practical and possible. Some accidental contamination from animal substances is likely in many situations, for example on production lines that are not dedicated to vegan products. Vegetarian products are a good indication that you’re on the right track, as this symbol eliminates many of the ingredients that you would like to avoid as a vegan. Watch out for eggs, dairy, and products derived from insects, such as silk, honey, beeswax, and shellac. Take care to avoid lanolin from sheep’s wool, found in many soaps, cosmetics, and creams.
Get more products labelled with the Vegan Trademark
Imagine being able to pick up any product in any shop and immediately know from the label whether it’s suitable for vegans or not? Encouraging the manufacturers of your favourite products to apply for our Trademark is a great way to support our work and make it easier for others to go vegan. Merely send a polite email or letter to a company whose product you’ve bought recently – or whose product you didn’t buy because you couldn’t tell if it was vegan or not. Ask the company if that product is suitable for vegans, and if they would consider registering it with The Vegan Society’s Trademark.
Be a savvy shopper
The trick is to stay one step ahead. Think about what ingredients could be present and how the offending ingredients are used. Beeswax is sometimes used in confectionary or lip balm but will be an unlikely contestant for a loaf of bread. And chances are, there won’t be any lanolin in your orange juice, but it could be present in hair conditioners. You will be surprised at how much variety there is once you’ve built up the confidence to check.
While this all may seem a bit daunting if you're a new vegan or have limited time or money to shop, take heart. Veganism seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, animal use and exploitation, so taking baby steps towards your goals may well be necessary. It doesn't make you any less vegan if you slip up now and again. And remember: The Vegan Society is here to support you if you need more advice or help.
*As of March 2021 there are over 48,000 products registered with The Vegan Society - Ed.
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