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5 Hidden Animal-Based Ingredients in “Vegan” Food Products

Unless a packaged food product has the word “Vegan” on the label, the best way to know if it’s vegan is to check the ingredients list.

Even when the label says “Plant-Based,” it’s best to check the ingredients list because, technically, plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean plant-exclusive. And as a general rule, products with the labels “Meat-Free” or “Dairy-Free” aren’t necessarily vegan, because they can still contain other animal-based ingredients.

The obvious animal-based ingredients to look for are beef, chicken, fish, turkey, pork, duck, lamb, and other animals, as well as milk, cheese, eggs, and egg whites.

But there are also hidden animal-based ingredients that show up in products that you might otherwise think are vegan. Check out the list below:


This is a red dye in food products that comes from the bodies of dried female beetles or cochineals. It’s found in juices and other drinks, fruit fillings, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy products.


This is a milk protein that can be found in supposedly nondairy cheeses, as well as in ice cream, bakery products, and cereals. This ingredient can also be listed as calcium caseinate and sodium caseinate.


This is an animal protein from pigs or cows that’s used as a thickening agent in foods like puddings, juice, frozen desserts, and the capsules used for vitamin supplements and pills.


These are additives that give a food product its flavor. In general, the FDA allows companies to hide ingredients under the term “Natural Flavors” as a way to protect their secret recipe — so that no one else will know exactly what flavorings are used in the food product. The concern here is that the natural flavors could be animal-derived or plant-derived. Unless the product explicitly states that it’s vegan, we have no way of knowing if the natural flavors are vegan, unless you check the company’s website or contact the company directly.


This is a watery substance that is derived from the fat and protein in milk during the cheese-making process. Whey is often found in foods that we might expect to be vegan, like some soy cheese and rice cheese brands, to help them melt, so pay careful attention. Whey is also typically found in dry mixes, bakery products, ice-creams, and other processed foods.

So there you have it. Now you’ll know how to tell if a packaged food product is vegan or not, when it doesn’t have “Vegan” on the label.

And if you want to explore the world of food ingredients even more — both plant-based and animal-based — check out the Vegetarian Resource Group’s Guide to Food Ingredients.