Many companies design their products to appear organic, natural, or plant-based, but that doesn’t mean they’re also vegan. If you’ve ever enjoyed a “naturally flavored” berry soda, for example, you might not have been aware that the berry flavor could actually have come from a truly horrifying ingredient called “castoreum.”
There aren’t too many companies that would directly name castoreum on their labels, knowing that most people would think twice about consuming something that’s flavored with it. Although this waxy, bitter substance somehow helps to augment certain flavors in foods and beverages, it’s actually produced from the fluids of certain mammalian sex glands, glands which, apart from everything else, also happen to be located disturbingly close to certain other parts of the body.
While the term “natural flavor” in the case of castoreum might appear to be a particularly striking case of animal industry double-speak, it’s far from the only example, and the truth is that natural flavors can really be anything at all, whatsoever, that’s generally recognized as safe by the FDA, and that’s not a man-made chemical, including every single ingredient of animal origin. Naturally-flavored pasta sauce, for instance, could be made with beef or chicken flavoring. And naturally flavored desserts can easily include flavors that are dairy-based.
Some margarine companies and even some otherwise plant-based cheeses go so far as to mark their products as “dairy-free” while still using casein, which is the principle protein in milk.
Make no mistake: “by-products” of the animal industry such as casein aren’t given away to the companies who use them. They’re sold, and this helps to make the primary products, such as milk, more profitable. It follows, then, that every item made with these ingredients directly supports the continued exploitation of the animals from whom they were taken.
While it’s true that some animal products may be unavoidable at this time, such as those used in the manufacture of cars and computers, there is a multitude of healthy vegan foods and personal care products that can be purchased without compromise. Not being able to avoid some animal ingredients doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t avoid the ones we can.
Some claim that insisting on reading labels makes veganism more difficult and demanding and therefore less accessible to others, suggesting that it’s better to settle for purchasing items that simply appear at first glance to be vegan. The more you learn though, the more you find that food and other product labels can potentially contain a whole host of animal-derived ingredients that presumably anyone would prefer to avoid, such as chicken or duck feathers, which can be used as a flour conditioner in certain breads.
Before too long, you may well find that you have no desire whatsoever to put anything either in or on your body without first knowing what’s on the ingredient list. Many of us have happily adopted the practice of label reading, realizing that knowing what’s in the products we purchase is not an inconvenience, but rather, a right that we should all be exercising.
To the informed and empowered consumer, reading labels is simply a natural part of purchasing any product, and so is asking questions of the companies that produce the items you are interested in buying. The time you spend calling to ask a question will impact not only the choices you make, but also, sometimes, the practices of the companies creating these products, as every call or email will remind them that there is a growing market for 100% vegan goods and services.
As for those who witness you happily poring over packages and patiently communicating with restaurant wait staff, don’t be afraid of “turning people off.” These are ideal opportunities to show others that there are those of us who take the vegan commitment seriously, and that we do so proudly and without compromise.
Don’t let it stress you out though. It doesn’t take as much time or effort as you might think, and it becomes much quicker over time, especially as you learn certain products and companies you can rely on, and you learn which are the common ingredients to look out for. More and more companies are even becoming vegan certified now, or are marking their products as “vegan” on the package.
There are also apps now that you can download to help you learn what certain ingredients are if you don’t recognize the name, and there are a number of ingredient directories online to look these names up from home.
Any processed food, after all, is likely to have a block paragraph of polysyllabic ingredients printed on its packaging. Many of these are not household words, so it can be difficult to recognize whether or not many of the ingredients are animal-derived. Keep in mind that manufacturers rely on our ignorance to sell their products, so if you see numbers like E441, don’t let this coded message blind you to the truth of what is hiding behind it. E441 is another name for gelatin, which is derived from sources such as skin, connective tissue, and bones.
Gelatin can be used for the clarification of juices, such as apple juice, and of vinegar, and sometimes in the clarifying of wine. (Casein, egg white and isinglass are other non-vegan wine fining agents.) When used in this way, these items don’t even have to be listed in the ingredients, so you’ll want to check out our guide to vegan drinks in the resource section. Luckily, it’s easy enough to ask the manufacturer if any animal products were used in the clarifying process, and once again, doing so opens their eyes to the fact that vegan practices are becoming important to an increasing population of consumers.
Some ingredients can come from multiple origins, such as glycerin. Glycerin can be synthetic, or it can be derived from either plants or animals, or a blend of both. Glycerides, such as mono-, di-, and tri-glycerides are used frequently by the food industry, and are often derived from animal fats.
When you see an ingredient like glycerin listed on a label, and the label doesn’t specify whether it’s of plant or animal origin, it’s another good time to call the company and find out where they source this ingredient from.
Think it’s not really a big deal? Well, while glycerin can be derived from plants, it’s frequently sourced from a slaughterhouse by-product known as tallow. Tallow is a euphemism for body fat from cows, sheep, pigs and horses. It’s derived from the hard fat found around the kidneys and other organs, and it’s obtained from the bodies of individuals who have been slaughtered for their flesh.
A 2010 report from The Vegetarian Resource Group found that glycerin is usually derived from plant materials when used in food. However, this is not a guarantee, and that is especially true in the case of cosmetics and in bath and body products, so unless the label lists the ingredient as ‘vegetable glycerin,’ it’s definitely advisable to either contact the company, or just put the item back on the shelf.
So, once again, the concerned consumer might ask herself the question: “Is it really possible to avoid the use of all animal products?”
The answer, of course, is that while it’s not possible to be 100% vegan in a world that uses the body parts of animals and the substances that can be extracted from them for every purpose under the sun, there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t do our absolute best to avoid these ingredients and replace them with nonviolent, plant-based alternatives.
Some may write this off as an unreachable goal of personal purity. Although many of us believe that striving for purity from animal derived substances is perfectly reasonable, reading labels is also about something as fundamental as understanding the extent to which our daily actions contribute to animal slavery indirectly, and about doing the best we can to diminish our part in their exploitation.
Certainly, there are times when we might experience a ’slip’ due to the fact that we’re not aware of a hidden ingredient, but the more we can do to inform ourselves about what these ingredients are and how to identify them, the more empowered we will be to make choices that are in alignment with our values.
You can be proud to be an informed label reader! View it as an opportunity to be even more well-educated about the products you’re purchasing and the ethics of the companies that are providing those products.
In time, our relationship with ingredient labels turns into something else that we have to be grateful for about our veganism, since becoming vegan is, for many, the door into a new world of awareness about the products we buy and use, and how much has previously been hidden from us by companies that profit from our purchases. Knowing that we are continuing to inform ourselves and take our consumer power into our own hands becomes a source of inner strength, and something we do gratefully, and gladly.
For more information about hidden ingredients and what to watch out for in your food and body products please visit our Is It Vegan section.