As anyone who strives to follow a vegetarian or vegan* lifestyle knows, cutting out animal ingredients to some degree can often be difficult. Even with full ingredient listings and information about country of origin for most products, from foods to clothes*, many veg*n folks still find out–too late, alas–that something they used came from animals.
When I became vegan over 11 years ago, it became almost a second job or an additional college course to study ingredients lists and information about where, exactly, the more “complicated” ingredients actually came from–all of the “-esthers” and “-ycols” and, yes, “natural flavors.”
But food is not the only place where animal products can weasel (pun intended) their way into your otherwise veg*n lifestyle. Choosing to live a cruelty-free lifestyle has an enormous impact on the environment, not to mention the welfare of our animal friends, and it is a difficult lifestyle to stick with. The more you know about the products you use and everything that went into them, the more you can choose wisely and avoid unintentionally consuming or using animals.
None of this will be news to veg*ns, of course. But if you are just starting out with living cruelty free, or you are not careful (okay, anal!) about checking into what you use, you might be unaware of some, to me, surprising places that animal ingredients show up. So here are some few “insider” tips and things to watch out for, compiled through 11 years of dedicated research…
Unexpected Animal Products in Foods and Supplements
- Gelatin: Gelatin is the traditional binding ingredient of choice, and so it is used extensively. For example, all varieties of the frosted Frosted Mini-Wheats contain gelatin, which comes from the bones and sinews of animals–so technically these are not even vegetarian. If you crave shredded wheat cereals, choose the unfrosted kind; these do not contain gelatin. Another rather surprising use of gelatin is in Altoids, those peppy little mints in the metal tin. So if you want fresher breath but do not want to kill an animal to get it, try something else (there are plenty nowadays)…or just cover your mouth!
- Vitamin D: Look carefully at your vitamins if you are a veg*n because if they contain vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), then they contain animal ingredients. Cholecalciferol/D3 is usually taken from lanolin, which is found in sheep’s wool. Luckily, vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is not derived from animals. Unfortunately, a lot of research suggests that this veg*n type is not as strong or effective as D3, so you might want to take more if you need it (and vegans often need to supplement)…or just get out in the sun, which floods you with tons of vitamin D. (Luckily, vitamin B12, the other vitamin that vegans must take in supplement form, is produced synthetically and/or from bacteria…as far as I know, that is; just be sure to look for “cyanocobalamin” on the label.)
- Cochineal/Carmine: Fruit juices can be tricky, and not just the frankenjuices that you often find in stores, having been “enhanced” and “supered” to the point that the fruit is far, far down in the ingredients list. Often lurking under the “natural flavors” category (and not listed individually) is cochineal or carmine, a red coloring that comes from the cochineal insect. If you are drinking something red or purple, you might be consuming this animal-derived ingredient (even if you do not see “cochineal” or “carmine” on the label); if you want to find out for sure what the “natural flavors” are, you should contact the company.
- Honey: Vegetarians and many vegans still consume honey, but strict vegans usually will not. Unfortunately, honey is a healthful and natural sweetener, not to mention a cultural tradition and staple in many places, so it is nigh ubiquitous–from energy bars and granola (it is sticky after all) to drinks and baked goods. Good, nutritious alternatives include agave nectar and maple syrup.
- Whey: Whey, the thin liquid that remains when separated from the thick curds when milk is processed into other products (think of the nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet). I have not quite figured out why, but whey is another ubiquitous ingredient in any number of foods–including margarines (i.e., butter alternatives), breads, granolas… Even Kellog’s Special K cereal has (dried) whey in it…explain that one to me…
Animal Ingredients in Other Products
- Leather and other animal skins/furs: This is a no-brainer; if it is not faux, then it required an animal to die. This will not be news to anyone, but I mention it because veg*ns often focus only on their diet when avoiding animal products…not the other things they use. Animal skins and furs are all over the place (and people, of course), and not just in lederhosen, rock-star leather pants, and Doc Martens (which you can get vegan, by the way). So if you are squeezed into some lederhosen or leather pants, then you definitely should answer “Yes” to the question in my post title! But shoes, belts, coats, and hats all frequently contain some amount of animal skin as well. You can avoid this by buying shoes made from all synthetic/man-made materials (check the labels in the shoes), belts made entirely of fabric, and other clothing without fur or leather components. Whatever you are buying, be sure to read the label to find out what the material is…luckily, that “fur-lined” winter jacket may in fact be faux fur.
- Wool: I separated this from the above section because sheering wool does not require the sheep to be killed. However, wool is still an animal product, and wool manufacturers are not free from the same types of practices you find in other factory farms. So, whatever your veg*n, it helps to think seriously about your use of wool. There are numerous synthetic options for staying warm in cold weather, none of which possibly entail the suffering of a living creature.
- Lanolin: As I mentioned above in the bit about Vitamin D, lanolin comes from sheep’s wool, and it is a mainstay of skin-care products. You can find lotions, shampoos, and other body-care products without lanolin, but you have to look carefully. (Also please be sure to choose products that explicitly say they are not tested on animals; many often also say there are no animal ingredients). Reliable sources for body-care products are Tom’s of Maine and Jason, among others.
- Down and feathers: Jackets, pillows, and blankets often use goose down (the soft under-feathers) or other bird feathers, which provide great, natural sources of warmth and cushioning. Feathers also make frequent appearances in hats or other fashionable items. As with wool, you can choose synthetic fibers instead of down, and fake feathers can add panache to your wardrobe instead of the real thing.
Obviously, the lists above are an infinitesimally small portion of the places where animals creep into the products you use. Yes, even choosing only a veg*n diet alone has huge benefits for our planet and its critters (including us). Nevertheless, animals are not only used to feed us–they clothe us, make us more beautiful, and keep us warm.
Whatever personal choices you make, I think it is essential to know your facts and do your research. If you have a question about something in a product you use, all you have to do is a quick internet search to find out what it is. You might also need to contact the manufacturer at times. And, yes, you likely will have to give up a few things you use. But cruelty-free living has its own, I would say more than compensatory, rewards.
Need a reliable source of vegan food? We’ve got meat substitutes, dairy substitutes, and even tofu in our Green Choices store.
*Links to pages in the Green Choices store.
Image credit: Gnangarra at Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons License.
The Beautiful Kind
Awesome post, thank you. I strive to do better and reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
You say synthetic alternatives to wool don’t entail the suffering of a living creature. Synthetic fabrics are usually made from oil, and we’ve all seen recently what drilling for oil can mean for our marine wildlife. The effects go beyond that, extending to wildlife on land, the pollution caused by manufacturing chemicals, off-gassing after the product is bought, and of course ghg emissions. Is this really a better alternative?
Justin Van Kleeck
Hello Jill. You make a good point, of course. I was referring to direct suffering (as in a person inflicting direct physical harm on an animal) rather than the indirect consequences of synthetic fiber production. These effects are not exclusive to textile production, of course, but every contribution is something to be cognizant of. This could also be said of purely “natural” textile fibers, such as cotton or bamboo–cotton is usually produced with intensive toxins, and bamboo can be raised unsustainably as well. The main argument for wool is usually its warmth, and synthetic fibers usually come closest to matching it, so that was why I pointed to them instead of organic cotton, hemp, etc. But I agree with you 100% that the best option is to avoid synthetics from oil…though I would still rather have a person something synthetic than wool, to avoid the direct harm wool production inflicts.
Great to see a positive use of my photograph, thank you for the attribution.
It raises some very interesting and thought provoking points