When deciding to go vegan, rarely does one realize how adept they will become with deciphering food labels. For me, it’s second nature; I don’t even think about what I’m doing. If I see a packaged item that I might like to try, I immediately flip it over to scan the ingredients. I can go through a list of 50 ingredients–including all of those hard to pronounce ones–in a few seconds, swiftly picking out any that are not vegan. Of course, I make it easy on myself by not eating too many heavily processed foods, but there are always moments when you need to use these skills. Maybe you’re on a road trip and must resort to food shopping at a gas station, or maybe you’re at your niece’s birthday party and there are some packaged foods that you’d like to try that may be vegan. There are endless scenarios when you may need to label read. If you are a newbie, learning all of this can be a daunting process, but don’t let it deter or frustrate you from making compassionate food choices.
When I went vegetarian, the only other people I knew who were veg were my 3 best friends. We were all new at this, and since we were the artsy dreamers and not the most sciency of people, we definitely had no idea what all of those hard-to-pronounce chemical names were on ingredient labels. The internet was still young–hello, dial up–and the vegan explosion was not yet in full swing, so how did we find out if mono- and diglycerides were vegan (they may or may not be)? What about gluten (yes) or gelatin (nope)?I can remember calling Wonder Bread–yes, I had highly refined tastes–to ask them about ingredients in their bread. I called many other companies, too, with my questions, and they were usually good at getting back to me. Occasionally, I still may need to contact a company, but there are so many resources to tap into now that it’s often unnecessary.
There are apps you can download to your phone to help you while you’re shopping, books like Veganissimo A to Z, and websites like the Vegetarian Resource Group’s that you can reference for labeling and ingredient questions. You can even go on social media to inquire about whether something is vegan (a great Twitter account that I follow is @veggieWHAT. If you have a question just tag it with #vegq, and she’ll retweet it so that followers have a chance to answer). There is no certainly no shortage of resources. I know it’s just that technology has advanced so quickly and that veganism is booming, but I feel like an old-timer when I say, “Back in my day, we had to call the company to see if something was vegan.”
Read up on your vegan and non-vegan ingredients and pretty soon you, too, will know that lactic acid has no relation to lactose (milk), but sterol lactate does. You’ll know that “natural flavors” can include castoreum, which is a substance excreted from a gland near a beaver’s anus. The more you learn, the more at peace you’ll be that you’re not ingesting the bi-products of immense suffering, and the better you will be able to help other new vegans navigate through the murky world of food label reading.