5 Common (Hidden) Animal Ingredients

We are what we eat. Maybe we should care a little more about both.


Here are 5 common animal-based ingredients I wish I knew about when I first went vegan. Unless you are a food scientist, you would not recognize the names without doing research. There are far too many “secret” animal ingredients to list (and other people have done a great job of it–just search for “vegan ingredients”). I will try to save you time with this short list of common animal ingredients, the names of which are really just another way of saying, “the gross parts of animals we could not sell you directly as food”:

1. Gelatin. Crushed up animal bones and throwaway animal material that can not be consumed otherwise (like hooves, bones, skin, cartilage, etc.). Gelatin is in Jell-O. It creates the gummy texture in marshmallows and “Gummi Bears” but also shows up in many cosmetics and cereals like Lucky Charms (the marshmallow bits). There are great vegan substitutes such as Agar-Agar or Arrowroot powder but it is much cheaper to feed your kids yummy horse hooves.

2. Whey. Basically, milk powder. This is the same stuff you hear weightlifters talk about for bulking up (rice protein would do the same thing without torturing animals) and it turns up in many places you would not suspect, such as “Non-Dairy” Creamers. Ironically, “non-dairy” creamer absolutely contains dairy. Look at the fine print below the ingredient list and see for yourself. Watch for whey in sauces, powders, and breads.

3. Glycerin. Also known as “glycerol”, this can be made from vegetable oil but it is usually more economical to produce it from animal fat. Because it is a sweet, colorless liquid it shows up in a lot of desserts and dairy-based foods like yogurt. It also helps add moisture to skin so you will find it in most soaps (who doesn’t like to rub a little animal fat all over their body?) and many pharmaceuticals (including the “casing” around vitamins). If the label does not specifically say, “vegetable glycerin”, it almost certainly is animal-derived.

4. Casein. This is another milk protein, like whey. It shows up mostly in cheese, butter, ice cream, and other dairy-based products. Just for kicks, it is also used in many adhesives and paints. Casein is also a tricky one for new vegans because it shows up in a lot of “vegetarian” products you might assume are vegan, such as soy-based cheese.

5. “Natural” Flavors. This is the worst of the worst, in my opinion. It is like listing “stuff” as an ingredient. Listing “natural flavors” is a way to help protect a company’s recipe from being reverse-engineered, but it does not help the consumer. The problem is, the phrase is so loosely defined by the FDA that it essentially means, “anything”. From the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 21, Section 101, part 22, revised April 1st, 2014):

(3) The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Blecch! What the hell is natural about that?!? 

If we are what we eat, I suggest we care a little more about both.

New vegans or pro vegans can still be caught by vague, misleading, or downright deceptive ingredient names. Remember, the food manufacturers interest is to sell us food, not ensure we are healthy or taking care of our fellow creatures and the environment. That is not a stab at food manufacturers. I am only saying it is our responsibility as individuals to take care of our bodies and world (though it would be nice if the manufacturers employed more ethically conscious people to help with that).

In an increasingly complex food system, another piece of old, traditional advice from grandma still holds true: “watch what you eat.” (Because no one else is going to.)