Food Vegetarian Cooking Vegetarian Dining

11 Foods You Didn’t Know Contain Animal Products (And How to Avoid Them)

What you need to know if you want to go plant-based.

As a lifelong vegetarian, I’ve picked up over the years the various ways that animal products make it into some popular dishes that people don’t necessarily think of as containing meat.

Sure, these dishes may not contain “meat” in the sense that they have a honkin’ slab of steak or a fish filet, but they contain ingredients that still count as animal products for people who wish to avoid them. (A quick note here: I’m not interested in preaching about the benefits or drawbacks of a vegetarian diet. I have no problem with other people’s eating habits as long as they don’t bother me about mine.) However, since I have found that I surprise even other lifelong vegetarians when I tell them about these ingredients, I thought this information could be useful to people who are trying to stay plant-based. It’s not always intuitive, as sometimes animal products show up in places you would least expect it (some of these surprised me too). So whether you are a long-time vegetarian or just starting out, here are 11 things you might want to watch for, with tips on workarounds and substitutions. 

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1. Bone char used to refine sugar

This one is for the vegans, and totally surprised me! Apparently, some varieties of refined sugar use bone char in the process of refining and whitening the sugar.

To work around these, it’s best to use organic or raw sugars like turbinado or beet sugars that are free from animal products. Certified organic products, by law, are not refined, and this do not use the refinement process including bone char, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. 

Also, I typically use Truvia, a natural sweetener made from Stevia leaf, which is also vegan.

2. Chicken and beef broth in soups, pastas, and baked dishes

Soups and stews at restaurants and out of a can commonly contain chicken or beef broth. Nowadays, some restaurants and brands of canned or boxed soups do use vegetable stock instead, but more often than not, they contain animal products. Therefore, verify the labels in the grocery store. Some brands that commonly use vegetable stock instead include the Amy’s and Pacific Foods brands, which also make really interesting, zesty soups to which I have always been drawn, regardless.

When dining at restaurants, ask the wait staff to check with the chef if the soup is made with animal stock or broth. I’ve made the mistake of hearing from wait staff that a dish is totally vegetarian one time, only to go back another time and hear that it is has animal stock because not all servers know the difference. Instead, unless the server tells me specifically that the dish uses vegetable stock, I don’t order soup at restaurants. Particularly those super flavorful soups you love like chowders, bisques and French onion? Yep. Most often they have animal stock.

In addition, some pastas that use heavy, flavorful cream or tomato sauces may use chicken stock for richness. This is also true of some popular baked dishes like spinach artichoke dip or casseroles. It’s worth asking the waiter, or, better yet, make these at home yourself if you want to avoid risking it.

3. Anchovies in Caesar dressing

I remember the first time I tried Caesar salad, I thought, man, there’s really not much to this salad except for the dressing, which contains all of the flavor. And it’s no wonder.  The reason the dressing IS so salty is because it is made with anchovies. I could never look at a ceasar salad again after I found out. Those little black specks in the dressing? That’s not just any ole’ seasoning. That’s minced anchovy.

Instead, if it’s not already premixed, you could use a gorgonzola dressing for the same satisfying savory effect.  However, you’ll have to watch out for the….

4. Rennet in cheese

This is the one that is hardest for me to accept mentally. My whole life I have been eating cheese, but in 2016, I found out that cheese contains rennet, an enzyme produced in a baby cow’s stomach. It finally made sense to my why so many servers would ask me if “cheese is okay” when I would tell them I was vegetarian while dining out at restaurants.

However, this is also going to be the hardest one for me to kick since I have grown up eating and loving cheese, whereas for the other dishes, it’s easy to check and avoid the offending ingredient.

The saltier, harder or European cheeses are more likely to have animal-based rennet, but thankfully, there is a list of brands and varieties of cheese that are not made with rennet, and of course, there is always the vegan cheese option. However, with some of the vegan cheeses I’ve tried, the taste and texture is off and it does not melt in the same way (for cooking). I have heard that some cashew cheese varieties and Tofutti work well too. My worry is that in some of these vegan cheeses, there are so many other products that it seems overly processed, which is also not healthy, so as always, it’s about balance and making the decision that works best for you. Eventually, I’d just like to cut cheese out entirely, but that’s a long-term goal.

5. Anchovies in tapenade

I was first introduced to tapenade when a foodie coworker in Guam made this and shared with all of us. His version was vegetarian, and I loved it! I didn’t even know there could be a non-vegetarian version since he said it was an olive dip. Soon, at restaurants when I saw this on the menu, I would order it as a dip for bread and pita.

However, some servers told me that the tapenade had anchovies, so now, I’ve started to ask at restaurants. It’s rare that there is anchovy in it, but it’s worth checking.

6. Fish, shrimp, oyster sauce in Asian dishes

Here too, seafood products are used to make dishes more savory and rich. Sometimes it could be in the dipping sauces, while other times it could be in the main dish itself, or the way the item is cooked. Simply asking if a dish is vegetarian won’t cut it because trust me, I’ve tried that, and I’ve learned the hard way that some cultures’ definition of vegetarian is different.

Ask specifically if the dishes contain these ingredients, and check food labels at the store.

My workaround here is to make Thai curry, my favorite Asian cuisine, at home using …. Eventually, my goal is to make my own paste from scratch, but for now, Asian Kitchen’s red and green curry jars do the trick.

7. Gelatin in mousses and desserts

That whipped light but gelling consistency you get in some desserts like mousse is a result of gelatin, made from a horse, cow or pig’s hoof, horns or skin. Essentially, it’s made from leftover scraps of the meat industry. At one time, chocolate mousse was a favorite dessert for me, until I realized it contained gelatin.

It is possible to make vegan mousse with aquafaba, the water in the cans of chickpeas. I’ve tried doing this before and I was surprised by how water could be whipped up into a fluffy clouds.

At the same time, the thought of canned chickpea water grossed me out, so I’ll have to find another way to make mousse at home.

8. Gelatin in vitamins, gummy snacks and candies, (now, usually replaced with pectin)

Just as above, gelatin has found its way into other sweets and even necessities that take a gelatinous form. Think: gummy candies and even gelcap medicines and vitamins.

I usually pick up my vitamins at Whole Foods, since they have the largest selection of vegetarian vitamins, but I let gel cap medicines slide because it is medicine, after all. At the end of the day, it’s going to depend where you want to draw the line, though some specialty pharmacies can make vegetarian pills upon request.

For gummy snacks, I check the label to get ones that have pectin since some candy and snack brands have switched over from gelatin to pectin For instance, Starburst and Skittles have reformulated to remove gelatin. Keep in mind that it’s not just the visibly chewy snacks, but even some hard-shelled candies that may use gelatin. Check the labels, as some of these brands have changed their formulas over time.

9. Gelatin in yogurt

Starting to get feel for it now? These creamy or gelatinous foods can sometimes contain gelatin. This adds a smooth texture to the yogurt and also helps with its shelf life apparently.

I typically stick to Dannon plain yogurt or Greek yogurts like Chobani or Fage, since some Yoplait and sweet Dannon varieties contain gelatin.

Check the label or ask the server to be sure.

10. Lard or other animal fat used to cook beans or rice

When I was a kid and most other Indians were falling in love with the chalupas and gorditas at Taco Bell, we all quickly realized that the refried beans were cooked in lard and many of us stopped eating there.

However, since then, Taco Bell has changed its menu and ingredients, now offering vegetarian refried beans– but not all places are like that. (They also now have black beans as a vegetarian option).

Some Tex-Mex restaurants still use lard or animal-based broth for cooking beans and rice, so it’s best to check with them.

11. Gelatin in sour cream

I discovered this one at Taco Bell as well. In researching the fast-food chain’s beans and overall vegetarian/vegan ingredients, I learned that their sour cream contains gelatin, and soon found out this was the case at other restaurants as well.

Bottom line? Check labels, ask questions, and double check! At the end of the day since these ingredients are not the main dish, it’s hard for us to see as vegetarians why these ingredients are needed at all, but I can also understand how they add richer flavor to some foods that omnivores enjoy.

Any I missed? Share your thoughts and substitution recommendations!

I want to know about any products I missed on this list, or if you have any alternatives. Do you know of any food that seem vegetarian but are not? Have you come across a certain brands that have changed the game in these foods? Comment and share below!

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