Doing Veganuary? Check your food labels carefully

Clare Daley
December 27, 2021
5 min read
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Doing Veganuary? Check your food labels carefully

Consuming less meat has become a popular New Year’s resolution, and many people explore plant-based eating by taking part in Veganuary.

But while intentions are good, many consumers struggle to embrace veganism when Veganuary ends on January 31st because unclear product labelling makes it difficult to shop confidently.

Research by the University of Bath has revealed that 80% of people don’t think the transition to veganism is easy, while 60% worry that a plant-based diet will not be enjoyable – when quite the opposite is true.

There is a huge range of tasty, vegan-friendly foods and beverages available on the market. You just need to take care when reading the product label, to make sure that item is suitable for vegans…

Surprising foods that aren’t suitable for vegans

Choosing vegan-friendly food seems simple enough, but many items you expect to be fully plant-based contain animal products. For example:

1. Cereal

A grain-based food like breakfast cereal might seem obviously vegan,  however, many products in this category are fortified with vitamin D from sheep’s wool grease. As a result, they are suitable for vegetarians but not vegans.

It’s especially confusing when brands produce a combination of vegan and non-vegan cereals in the same range; for example, Shredded Wheat Original is vegan but flavoured versions are not.

To buy confidently, stick to brands that market their vegan credentials clearly on the packet – such as Three Wishes, Nature’s Path and Amisa.

2. Marshmallows

Confectionery can be a bit of a minefield when you’re first exploring veganism, as it’s easy to get caught out by hidden animal products. For instance, most marshmallows aren’t vegan because they contain gelatine, which is an animal protein. This includes popular products like Haribo Chamallows and Flumps.

The good news is that there are vegan marshmallow companies like Dandies and Freedom Mallows, which use plant extracts like carrageenan as an alternative to gelatine. So going vegan doesn’t mean giving up your favourite sweet treat!

3. Chewing gum

Like marshmallows, the rubbery texture of chewing gum is often achieved by using gelatine. However, some brands – like Hubba Bubba and PUR – prefer a vegan gum base that uses ingredients like dextrose and carnauba wax to achieve a thick consistency.

4. Wine and beer

How can a product made from grapes or hops not be plant-based? The answer lies in the way in which wines and beers are filtered during production.

When fermented grapes become alcohol, proteins and tannins in the liquid mean wine sometimes appears cloudy. Some wine brands use a fining agent to increase product clarity, and these agents can contain animal products such as chitin (fibre from crustacean shells) and isinglass (gelatine made from fish bladder membranes).

However, there are brands like Proudly Vegan that create wines for people following a strictly plant-based diet.

Some brewers also use isinglass, chitin and gelatine to make liquid clearer – but more beers tend to be vegan as standard than wine. The challenge vegans face is that details of these fining agents don’t need to be listed in the product ingredients, so it’s important to check whether beer, wine or other alcoholic products say either ‘unfiltered’ or ‘suitable for vegans’ on the bottle.

5. Jams and curds

Another food product that falls victim to the gelatine curse is jam and other sweet, sticky spreads, which manufacturers use to maintain their consistency. Lemon curd also involves ingredients derived from animals such as eggs and butter.

But increasingly, companies are utilising plant-based alternatives like pectin to set their products, to ensure they are vegan-friendly. Branded items like Robertson’s marmalade and Wilkin & Sons conserves (part of the Tiptree group) are already suitable for vegans.

6. Soy sauce

While popular brands like Kikkoman and Lee Kum Kee are vegan certified, it’s always worth checking the bottle when buying condiments like soy sauce.  

Occasionally, these products are not suitable for vegans. This is because they either contain fish materials, or they include white sugar made with bone char – which is produced from cattle bones. However, non-vegan soy sauce tends to be found in Asia more prevalently than Europe and the USA.

Manufacturing processes can also impact vegan food labelling  

Even if a product is fully plant-based, how it has been manufactured may also render it unsuitable for vegans. For example, a packet of ready salted crisps made in a factory where other crisp flavours containing animal products – such as cheese & onion or smoky bacon – are produced.

Vegetarian and vegan-friendly food manufacturing is still a legal grey area. As we discussed in a recent blog post on vegan product labelling, there’s no standard framework for what makes a product suitable for vegans.

As a result, some food and beverage brands are choosing to leave the vegan logo off packaging if products have been made in the same facility as non-vegan goods. When in reality, many vegans or flexitarians would be happy to eat that item, provided food hygiene standards have been followed.

How to read a food label to check if its vegan

As the wine, beer and crisp examples we’ve shared demonstrate, identifying whether a product is suitable for vegans is not always simple. The location and way in which foods have been produced can mean they’re not vegan-friendly, despite being plant-based.

If you’re new to veganism and unsure how to read the label to see if a product is vegan-friendly, here are some things to look out for:

  • Vegan logo – some packaged foods carry the vegan trademark or certified vegan logo
  • ‘Suitable for vegans’ claim – even without a logo, some brands will state that an item is suitable for vegans as part of their product claims
  • Allergen information – some common animal-based products are often highlighted as part of mandatory allergen labelling, including eggs and seafood. However this isn’t always a reliable vegan test, as allergen information requirements vary from country to country, and items may still contain non-vegan ingredients that aren’t common allergens

For more information read everything you need to know about mandatory food allergen labelling.

  • Ingredients listing – ingredients aren’t a sure-fire guide as to whether a product is vegan-friendly, but they still provide useful information. Just be aware that it’s not just whole ingredients that may or may not be vegan; additives like monoglycerides, collagen, whey protein, albumen and royal jelly are all derived from animals.

If you’d like further support, many vegan organisations provide lists of popular animal-free foods, to help you enjoy Veganuary and potentially switch to plant-based eating long-term.

For more information on vegan product labelling, follow Hooley Brown on LinkedIn.

This blog post was written in December 2021. Fact were correct at time of writing.

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