Following a vegetarian diet doesn’t simply mean cutting out meat. There are loads of other animal-based ingredients that sneak their way into all sorts of food and drink items that you may innocently assume are vegetarian-friendly.
Lurking in everything from sweets to soup and bread to beer, the world of hidden animal ingredients can be a bit of a minefield. To help navigate it and stay away from hidden nasties, here’s a handy list of the main culprits to watch out for:
Probably one of the most common animal ingredients in food, gelatine is made from boiled animal skin, bones and tendons. It’s used as a gelling agent in set desserts (eg. panna cotta, mousse, cheesecake) and sweets (eg gummy lollies, marshmallows). It is also a common thickener in dairy products like yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, and margarine – particularly low-fat varieties.
Even antibiotics or other medications in capsule form are best avoided, as they’re usually coated in gelatine.
Vegetarian alternatives: agar, pectin, vegetable gum, carrageenan
Isinglass is a form of gelatine made from the swim bladders of fish. It is most commonly used as a fining or clarification agent in beer, cider and wine to produce a clearer finished product. It can also be found in apple juice, vinegar and soy sauce.
As isinglass is used in the fining process, it is not considered an actual ingredient, so won’t be listed on any packaging.
Vegetarian alternatives: There’s plenty of veggie-friendly wines, ciders and beers on the market, especially with the recent explosion of the craft beer scene (as many craft beer companies avoid isinglass); you just have to do your research. Check labels to see if the drink is suitable for vegetarians, or ask companies directly if they use isinglass in the filtration process.
Made from the stomach lining of ruminant mammals (most commonly newborn calves and piglets), rennet is used to coagulate cheese.
Rennet is not mandatory in cheese making but there are some varieties of cheese that simply cannot be vegetarian. Due to strict rules that the traditional recipe must be followed in order to carry the name, Parmesan (aka Parmigiano Reggiano), Grana Padana, and Gorgonzola will always contain rennet.
Parmesan is a common ingredient in pesto and all three cheeses often feature in “vegetarian” options in restaurants, so it’s something to watch out for!
Vegetarian alternative: Vegetarian rennet (vegetable or microbial)
(AKA carminic acid, cochineal, crimson lake, natural red 4, or E120)
Made from dried, crushed insect shells, carmine is used as a food colouring. It naturally has a bright red hue but can be used for any shade of red, pink or purple in sweets and chocolate, soft drinks, juices, yogurt, ice cream, food dye, packaged cakes and icing, and even glacé (aka maraschino) cherries!
Carmine is also a common ingredient in cosmetics such as lipstick, blush and nail polish.
Vegetarian alternatives: Beetroot, paprika, black carrot, radish, or sweet potato extracts.
Bone char come from cattle bones and is used to filter sugar and make it white. It is used for regaluar granulated sugar, as well as icing (confectioner’s) sugar. Brown sugar may seem safe bit it still contains refined sugar, so may still have used bone char in processing.
As it’s used in processing, it doesn’t need to be listed as an ingredient, so won’t be marked on labels. Your best bet is to research individual brands and their methods of processing sugar.
Vegetarian alternatives: Organic sugar (bone char is not organically certified), or beet, coconut, brown rice, demerara or muscovado sugars.
Depending on use, other sweeteners such as honey, agave nectar, date nectar, molasses, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, or natural sweetener (eg. Stevia) can be substituted.
Made from pork fat, lard is used often for deep frying or making flaky pastry. It’s also a traditional ingredient in refried beans so always check packaging or ask before ordering at your favourite Mexican joint.
Vegetarian alternatives: Vegetable shortening, coconut oil, butter (for non-vegans)
Suet comes from the fat on the loins and kidneys of cattle and mutton, and is used in both savoury and sweet puddings and pastries. Christmas pudding traditionally contains suet, as does the mincemeat in mince pies so be sure to check the ingredients in your festive treats!
Vegetarian alternative: Vegetable suet, grated vegetable shortening
Animal-based stock (usually beef or chicken) may seem like an obvious one but it tends to sneak into otherwise vegetarian foods. Soup is the biggest offender but be sure to check labels when buying pre-made risotto, pasta sauces, packet noodles etc.
I always ask in restaurants too, even if an item is marked “vegetarian” as stock often isn’t considered “meat”.
Vegetarian alternatives: Vegetable stock is the obvious choice but you can also mix yeast extract like Marmite/Vegemite or miso with water to make a quick and easy stock with that strong, salty flavour.
Fish & Oyster Sauce
Another seemingly obvious one but fish and oyster sauces are common ingredients in Asian cuisine, particularly Thai and Vietnamese. Always check the ingredients on jars of curry sauce or packaged curry paste, and ask before ordering in restaurants, as many consider fish and oyster sauces to be vegetarian.
Vegetarian alternatives: Umeboshi paste, soy sauce, mushroom sauce
Shrimp paste is another fishy ingredient often lurking in Thai dishes. Check pre-made curry pastes and sauces, and always ask in restaurants as ordering a veggie curry without fish sauce will not guarantee that it’s fish-free.
Vegetarian alternatives: Fermented bean paste, miso
I know you know that the teensy little anchovy fish is not vegetarian. You probably know they’re in Caesar dressing. But did you know they’re also in Worcestershire sauce? (This rules out Bloody Marys!) Anchovies also sneak into olive tapenade, pasta sauces (eg. Puttanesca sauce), and other salad dressings.
Vegetarian alternatives: You want something with a salty, briny flavour so depending on the use, try soy sauce, liquid aminos, olives, miso, seaweed (eg. nori) or capers.
Sticking with the fish theme, watch out for food and drinks fortified by Omega-3. Omega-3 often comes from fish oil and can be found in fortified fruit juice, bread, and margarine. Fish-based omega-3 is usually in multivitamins but can be found in other vitamin supplements.
Vegetarian alternatives: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a plant-based type of omega-3 found in seeds like chia, flax, linseed, pumpkin and hemp, as well as walnuts, soy and canola oil.
Natural flavours can be either plant or animal-based and unless they are possible allergens, companies are not required to specify the source. A natural flavour listed as one ingredient could in fact include upwards of 50 different elements so you really don’t know what you’re getting!
Natural Flavour is commonly used in sweets, dairy products, soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, baked goods, packaged desserts, cake mixes, and flavoured oils (like that used on US McDonald’s Fries; apparently UK Mickey Dee’s is safe).
Vegetarian alternatives: Some natural flavours could be entirely plant-based but you would need to check each item with its manufacturer to be certain.
To finish this up on a gross one… castoreum comes from the castor sac of beavers, which is located right next to their anal glands. Yes, really. Oddly enough, it creates a strong vanilla scent and flavour and is used not only as a vanilla replacement but also to enhance flavours like strawberry and raspberry in sweets, ice cream, packaged desserts, and some beverages. Castoreum is often listed under “natural flavouring”, which is a scary thought.
It’s also used in fragranced items like perfume, cosmetics and scented candles.
Vegetarian alternative: Good ol’ vanilla extract
Hopefully this list is useful (and not too disgusting!). If there’s any nasties I’ve missed off, please comment below!
Have you ever been caught out by these sneaky ingredients?