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Label reading guide for vegans

Is it vegan?

Which ingredients do I need to look for? See our handy vegan food label reading guide make shopping much easier.

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
We look at both sides of the argument and strive to be objective, unbiased, and honest.
Last updated on July 14, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on August 22, 2021.

Food can suddenly feel quite foreign when you decide to try vegan.

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Is it vegan or not?” when reading food labels? It’s an odd sensation when you realize you don’t actually know what’s in most of the foods you eat. You start to question even the most obvious things and your local supermarket may feel like uncharted territory.

Below are a few tips that’ll have you throwing items into your shopping trolley with confidence, but here’s a mantra to remember. If in doubt, it’s probably best to leave it out.

1. Does it say vegan on the pack?

There’s never been a better time to go vegan! There are more options available than ever before, and plenty of companies make it easy by sticking the V-word right on the pack. But not everything vegan says vegan on the pack. So, if it looks vegan but doesn’t make it clear, move to point 2.

2. Does it say vegetarian on the pack?

Many packs state if something is vegetarian, so our first tip is to look for that. If it says vegetarian, you’ll need to look closer at the ingredients list.

Legally, a company must explicitly state which allergens are contained in a product, and these typically will be highlighted in bold on the ingredients list or stated separately below it. If you see a non-vegan allergen ingredient (eggs, milk, whey, and casein are usual suspects) then that item isn’t vegan. If none are listed on a vegetarian product, it’s likely to be vegan but it’s worth scanning the ingredients more closely just to be sure.

3. Common non-vegan ingredients

Are any of these in the ingredients list? If so, it’s not vegan. These ingredients are derived from animals and commonly used in food and other products, so you’ll get used to them pretty quickly.

4. ‘May contain’ labeling

If the product in your hand still looks to be vegan, you may be confused by a warning that it ‘may contain milk’ or ‘traces of milk.’ What? Does it or doesn’t it? Is it vegan or not?

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Suggested read: Is alcohol vegan? A complete guide to beer, wine, and spirits

In most countries, manufacturers must declare whether a product is made in a factory where allergens are present. Since most food allergens are in animal products, you may find a warning about milk, eggs, or even shellfish on a product that otherwise appears vegan. Don’t worry. It still is vegan.

This warning is a legal requirement; it doesn’t mean the item contains animal products.

Learn more about the ‘may contain milk’ label here.

5. A few things to watch out for…

Check out this article to find out what kind of sugar is vegan!

6. Contact the manufacturer

If you’ve worked through the list and are still unsure if something is vegan, contact the manufacturer, and here’s a little tip: be specific. If you just ask “Is it vegan?” a lot of the time they’ll just play it safe and say no.

A good question to ask is, “I notice this item isn’t listed as vegan, but there isn’t anything not vegan in its ingredients. Could you please confirm if there is anything that makes it unsuitable, i.e. cross-contamination during manufacture, or ingredients involving animal products?” You’re more likely to receive a detailed reply.

Suggested read: Vegan guide to makeup and cruelty-free cosmetics

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