As a vegan, it can be a nightmare finding out what’s safe to eat. These are some foods you probably thought were vegan but aren’t!
With the food industry always trying to reduce costs it’s becoming increasingly shocking the variety of animal products finding their way into foods you thought were cruelty-free. Surely fruit and vegetables are safe? Fruit juice must be safe? Well, I can tell you now, nothing is safe. Okay, that’s a slight overstatement but you do need to be vigilant. To make things easy for you here are a whole bunch of foods you probably thought were vegan but aren’t.
“Man, so there are even more things that aren’t vegan!?!?”
Unfortunately, there are animal products in the most surprising of places so it’s best to know which foods that aren’t vegan so you can avoid them. It takes commitment, planning and A LOT of ingredient checking to be completely free of animal products but we think it’s worth it.
This list was put together so you know and are aware of what to look out for, whether that’s shopping for vegan hiking snacks, an impressive dinner or a cruelty-free picnic.
For a long-term, healthy vegan lifestyle it’s much easier if you WANT to be vegan, rather than feel like you should. For this reason, if after reading this article you realise many staples of your diet are not vegan, take your time finding the right alternatives rather than cutting out everything straight away. There has never been a better time to be vegan, every day there are more and more plant-based options so go slow and find alternatives one by one.
A quick note: some foods on this list are never vegan-friendly whilst others will depend on the brand and region. To be safe, check that label!
This article may contain affiliate links, they will never cost you more money but helps Veggie Vagabonds keep making content like this – thank you!
A Whole Bunch of Foods You Thought Were Vegan But Aren’t
1. Foods Labelled as ‘Dairy-Free’
Can contain: Animal additives, E-numbers or just plain meat
Don’t be fooled by that dairy-free stamp! This one may seem obvious but although things marked as ‘dairy-free’ won’t contain dairy they may contain other animal products. A chicken breast is dairy-free, so is a prawn, they’re still not vegan.
Pick this instead: many dairy-free items are vegan too, so just check the ingredients or look for the vegan stamp. Check out some dairy-free vegan options in the UK here or in USA here.
Can contain: bone and connective tissue
All that wibble wobble wibble wobble can, unfortunately, be animals products on your plate. Jelly is found on many cakes, ice lollies and desserts and quite often contain gelatine: crushed animal bones.
Pick this instead: gelatine-free jelly is now easy to find and you can find make-at-home vegan jelly kits here! In the US, you can use agar agar, which is a gelatine substitute.
Contains: Dead bees
Many people may not realise but honey is not vegan. Although there are many reasons for this, the key points are that many many bees are killed during honey production, honey is actually the bee’s food and beekeepers often kill the queen bee to keep production levels high. If you want to know more here’s an interesting article from a beekeeper.
Pick this instead: Go for agave, maple syrup or syrup as awesome replacements. Find online!
Can contain: a variety of meaty or dairy products
Finding crisps that are vegan can be a bit of a headache. Some flavours you’d never expect to be vegan are actually suitable, whilst others you would assume are in fact not. Meat flavourings are often added whilst milk powder can also be added to the most surprising of places.
Pick this instead: there are loads of vegan crisps (you just gotta check the labels) but these are hands-down our favourites!
Can contain: Casein or lactose
Although a lot of margarine is vegan, it’s not always the case. Some brands use casein or lactose so make sure you check the ingredients or look for a vegan stamp. Ingredients are constantly changing, so make sure you regularly check your shopping basket in case they’ve added some nasties.
Pick this instead: many kinds of margarine are vegan and Your Daily Vegan has a very comprehensive list of vegan butters in the UK and USA.
Can contain: Egg whites, milk products, crustacean shell, bone and connective tissue, fish bladders
Alcohol that isn’t vegan!?!?! Be cautious all you vegan boozers, alcohol can contain a whole variety of different animal products that you’d never expect. Cider and wine sometimes use gelatine (cow and pig bone and connective tissue), albumin (derived from egg whites) and casein (milk-based protein) in the filtration process. Wines use crustacean shells for fining and ales commonly use isinglass to filter yeast which is taken from fish bladders (you’ve gotta be taking the piss, fish bladders?).
Pick this instead: Fear not, there is plenty of vegan-friendly alcohol – to find out if your favourite booze is meat-free then check out Barnivore.
7. Red coloured foods
Can contain: Crushed insects
How do they even think of these things? Red food colouring or carmine (sometimes labelled as E120) is made from the cochineal insect which is crushed to produce the colour. Reportedly 70,000 beetles must be crushed to produce 1 pound of the dye. It’s used in many red sweets and foods along with cosmetics and household items.
Pick this instead: with the vegan revolution many brands are moving away from carmine (even Haribo!) so check the label and look for the vegan stamp. Biona does delicious vegan Haribo-style sweets and they’re an awesome organic option!
Can contain: Meat Stock
Many soups which may seem vegan actually use meat stock for flavouring. This is very common in traditional restaurants throughout Europe so have a word with the waiter before you order that vegetable soup.
Pick this instead: if you’re in a restaurant clearly explain you want a soup with no meat, dairy or meat stock. In shops, the vegan option is improving and now you can even get vegan pea & ham soup!
Can contain: shrimp and crab shell
Non vegan fruit? It’s surprising how nice all those bananas look, considering how far they’ve had to travel. A lot of the time its thanks to chitosan which is used as a preservative to increase the shelf life of bananas. Chitosan is taken from crustacean shells, most commonly shrimp and crabs. If you’re not questioning is fruit vegan? Yes, it is, but sometimes non-vegan products are used as preservatives.
Pick this instead: this one can be difficult to check, so the best thing is research online, email the place you’re shopping or opt for organic fruit that doesn’t use preservatives.
Vegan outdoor lover looking for the right gear? Check these out:
We Contacted 20+ Outdoor Companies to Find Out Which of Their Hiking Boots Were 100% Vegan!
The Best Vegan Insulated Jackets and Buyer’s Guide
How to Pick a Vegan Sleeping Bag & Which is Right For You
Or check out our Vegan Adventures section!
10. Fruit Juice
Can contain: Fish oil, sheep’s wool, crushed insects or animal bones
How have they managed to put animal products in juice? To seem extra healthy many companies add extra nutrients and vitamins like omega-3 oils which are derived from fish and vitamin D – sometimes sourced from sheep’s wool. Not only this but some juices use gelatine for thickness and carmine for red colouring.
Pick this instead: avoid juices with added omega-3 oils, look for 100% fruit juices or squeeze your own
11. Marshmallows and Haribo style soft sweets
Can contain: Crushed insects, bone and connective tissue
Most marshmallows and Haribo style soft sweets contain gelatine and many red ones also use carmine. If you felt left out not being able to eat sweets like your friends when you were younger, or frustrated by the marshmallow-free vegan backpacking trips, we know how you feel.
Pick this instead: now there’s a huge variety of vegan sweets (yes, vegan Haribo too) so you can have tooth fillings like the rest of your friends. These vegan marshmallows are ace!
12. Roast vegetables and mash
Can contain: Goose fat, butter, milk or cream
Whether it’s ready-made from the shops or from a restaurant be careful as roast vegetables may have butter or goose fat used for baking. Mash is regularly cooked with cream, butter or milk (or all three) so keep an eye out!
Pick this instead: if buying from a shop then check labels or go for vegan range. In a restaurant make sure you clearly ask the waiter, or, better yet, support a vegan restaurant!
READ MORE: The Ultimate List of Vegan Protein Sources
13. Lactose-Free Products
Can contain: dairy products
Whilst most Lactose-intolerant people avoid dairy foods, lactose-free food can still contain casein or whey which are milk proteins and are not vegan.
Pick this instead: much like the dairy-free products, make sure you check ingredients and look for a vegan stamp.
14. White sugar
Can contain: Cow bone
Whilst this is less common in the UK, in the US many sugar companies use bone char (charred bones) to whiten their sugar. This also applies to brown sugar as it goes through the same process as white sugar and then has molasses added. A huge amount of products have added sugar, so there may be a lot of foods you thought were vegan but aren’t.
Pick this instead: this information is rarely added to packages so you might have to check online. Here’s some extra info and a list of vegan-friendly sugars.
15. Dark chocolate
Can contain: Milk or milk powder
I was eternally grateful when I found out that a lot of dark chocolates don’t use any dairy. Beware though, this tends to be better quality chocolates with a higher percentage of cocoa. Other dark chocolate brands may still use milk products so check the ingredients list or look for a vegan stamp!
Pick this instead: the higher percentage of cocoa the better – check the ingredients for milk powder or vegan stamp. If you like salted caramel, you’ll wanna check this out!
16. Worcestershire sauce
Yup, one of Britain’s favourites is not vegan or vegetarian, it contains anchovies.
Pick this instead: instead go for the proud Sheffield staple Henderson’s Relish as it’s cruelty-free!
Can contain: Animal stomach
Not only are many types of pesto not vegan, but many also are not vegetarian either. Most traditional types contain Parmesan which may use rennet. Rennet is taken from the stomach lining of mammals, most commonly young calves.
Pick this instead: vegan-friendly pesto is now commonly available and there are loads of options here.
Can contain: cow’s milk or cream
This one may seem like one of the obvious non vegan foods but it’s surprising how many people don’t realise (many meat-eaters!). Butter is NOT vegan, it’s just milk or cream – a definite no-no.
Pick this instead: now there are lots of vegan butter alternatives, spreads and margarine which is suitable.
And something interesting for you…
Contains: Dead wasps
Hard to believe but completely true, for some figs to be pollinated it requires a female wasp to die inside! The wasp enters to lay her eggs, is then unable to escape and is broken down by enzymes in the fig. Figs would be unable to pollinate without the female wasps but wasps also need the figs to lay their eggs. As they both need each other to survive, it’s what’s known as a symbiotic relationship.
This is a completely natural process and no animals were exploited so figs are still considered vegan, but it’s something interesting to know. It seems crazy but it’s true folks.
Are there any vegan foods we missed out or where a real surprise?
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A Whole Bunch of Foods You Thought Were Vegan but Aren’t
Crushed insects, fish bladders, stomach lining, how do they even think of using it these things?
If this is all new information to you then I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. There may be many foods you now realise aren’t vegan, but, there are probably plenty of other foods you thought weren’t vegan but are.
Right now we’re experiencing the Vegan Revolution and every day more and more vegan items are going on the shelves. Yes, there are still a lot of surprising things that are not vegan but our numbers are growing and we’re putting pressure on companies to get the meat off the menu and out of our products. As I mentioned in the opening lines, it’s all about baby steps: if these are products you regularly consume then take your time finding the right alternatives and be a life-long, happy vegan!
You might also like to read
The Best Vegan Hiking Food for Adventure-Driven Herbivores
Vegan Energy Balls for Outdoor Adventures
Vanilla and Raspberry flavoring can come from Beaver anal gland secretions and is usually labeled natural flavors – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castoreum
Gosh dang it! Just another point to carefully read your labels! Thank you for this, I didn’t know half of it!!
It’s horrible they could think of using this, particularly in any type of food!
I’m glad it was helpful! Yes, label checking is crucial, we’re going to be putting up a post showing the things to look out for on labels!
Hey what about Palm oil /fat and other parts that are drastically contributing to the mass deforestation, and habitat loss for orangutangs and other species Not ethically vegan !
We’ve got another article coming about ethical products, not necessarily direct animal products, but products or ingredients that have terrible environmental impacts. I completely agree that palm oil is a huge issue that needs to be faced by vegans and all consumers!
Great article. 🙂 It is often I find myself looking over labels for hours just to try to establish if it is safe to eat! There are so many different brands that are now trying to be more progressive in their labelling and that is really helpful. I would love to see it come into law that labelling animal products should be statutory, what do you think? I often make my own pesto which is delicious and much tastier than the Tesco one (although I don’t think there is such thing as a bad pesto 😉 )
Hey Robert, sorry it’s taken so long to respond to you! Ahh, label checking is tedious but it’s also quite a good way to spot vegans in a shop, going from one item to the other reading labels, ha! I definitely agree that mandatory label checking should be law, it would be more convenient and safer for vegans and also people with dietary requirements and allergies. We love pesto! Have you got a recipe? We’d love to see it 😀
Explain deeply. great work..!
Many people think the vegan diet is unhealthy and difficult, but a well planned vegan diet can be the healthiest around. Also, there are egg, dairy, meat, pretty much everything replacements, although most vegans agree it’s better to stick to whole foods.
To people who think it’s unhealthy or difficult I invite them to come and live with us for a week, ha! You’re right though, there are a lot of replacements which can make food variety easier but we still try and opt for whole foods. Do you prepare much food yourself? To us that’s key for a happy and healthy vegan diet 🙂
very nice blog post.. Very happy to read it do continue writing to make me understand well.. Thank you
Hey Rohini, really glad you liked the article. If you’ve got any Q’s or want some advice then feel free to give us a shout!
It isn’t true that “for all figs to be pollinated it requires a female wasp to die inside”. Not all figs sold for consumption require this. Even in cases where a wasp is involved, it doesn’t matter for people whose vegan ethics are about not killing or abusing a living creature, the point being that the wasp has already died doing what it does naturally, and isn’t even a wasp any more because it’s been dissolved.
Hey Jason, thanks for the correction, you’re right not all figs do need wasps to pollinate them, but very interesting that some do. As we said in the post though, we don’t think this makes figs non-vegan, just something interesting to think about 🙂
I’m doing some research for my vegan girlfriend and I am a bit shocked that a vegan diet is so incredibly strict. No honey? No orange juice? I’m sure most people had no idea that these products are non-vegan.
Hey Adam, first of all nice one for researching for your vegan girlfriend!
This post is highlighting products which may seem vegan but are sometimes not, so that’s why it may seem shocking. Although honey is never vegan a number of other things on the list MAY contain the animal products shown, it will not be the case for all companies. With orange juice some companies may use animal ingredients whilst a lot of others don’t, this is why label checking is important.
I’m not sure where you’re posting from but in the UK there are now more vegan products than ever. It’s really opening up food options and there’s now a massive selection of products and alternatives to choose from which is great!
Good luck with your researching, feel free to contact us if you want any advice 🙂
Whether honey is vegan or not, is quite a controversial question. I believe only radical vegans give up using honey.
Honey is an animal product and isn’t vegan. There are a few debatable vegan topics but honey isn’t really one of them 🙂
Great article, totally what I was looking for.
Wow! Didn’t know about figs and white sugar! Thanks for clearing it up!
Crazy right!?!? It’s not all white sugar though but it’s probably quite a healthy thing to cut out of your diet anyway 🙂
My wife always believe that foods with dairy free stamp are all vegan. She should read this post.
Always gotta check! I think because a lot of the dairy free and vegan food is kept together it can sometimes be confusing.
My wife always has a headache every time I choose pure vegan food, I think this article will be helpful to her
The answer is to cook her some really tasty vegan food to win her over!
Choosing vegan food is one thing that is not easy for beginners like me. Your article was very helpful, it helped me a lot in choosing vegan foods. Thanks for sharing
I always have a headache with choosing vegan foods, your share has helped me make it easier. Thanks for that
Hey Adam, thanks for you comment and seriously glad the article has been some help. Feel free to message us if you want any suggestions or tips!
Hey Will! Hopefully the headaches will be a thing of the past, especially with so many more new vegan products coming onto the market!
Refried beans in countries like Guatemala and the USA sometimes use pig fat to mix with the beans, just an FYI to all you bean lovers
Hey Hailey 🙂 Thanks for that, it’s a shame they do that, we’re currently in France and they often put duck fat in with their beans – very unnecessary! Thanks for sharing with everyone here 🙂
I like vegan food, I have just started vegetarian recently, so choosing vegan food for my daily menu is very difficult for me. Your post helped me a lot. Thank you for your sharing
Hey William, really glad it could be helpful. Can I ask why you switched to veggie?
Useful information! Thanks for your great sharing
I love the organic/health food section of my store! Whenever buying something for the first time, I always read the labels; if it’s non-vegan, I put I back. Is it worth it?? As I walk about, I see sooo many overweight, sick people, and I glance at what they’re buying… Yup–it’s worth it. We are what we eat; we’ve always known that.
Hi Louise, I think it can take a little while to get familiar with labels. But once you get acquainted with what to look for, it becomes a lot easier.
I agree it’s so important to eat a well-balanced diet to keep you feeling good in every sense. Happy munching 🙂