35 Foods that Are Surprisingly Not Vegan

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Plant-based and vegan diets are becoming more and more popular as people realize how much their food choices affect their health and the health of our planet.

But making the switch to a cruelty-free diet can be harder than you might think, and I’m not just talking about the mental anguish that comes with giving up bacon. I’m talking about navigating around these 35 foods that are surprisingly not vegan.

Surprising Foods That Aren’t Vegan

Bagels

May contain: Cysteine from feathers

tatooed hipster making bagels
Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

Before you toss out that bag of bagels on your counter, know that most bagels are vegan. Where you need to be wary is when picking up breakfast on the fly. Some popular bagel chains have been found to use cysteine in their recipes. This conditioning agent is made from duck and chicken feathers.

Bananas

May contain: Crustacean-derived chitosan

commercial non-organic bananas
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

We’re not going to lie, this one had us doing a double-take. Apparently, chitosan, a bacteria-fighting substance derived from crab and shrimp shells, works well as a spray-on preservative for fruit. It’s most commonly used on bananas. To avoid this odd animal ingredient, be sure to go organic.

Beer

May contain: Fish bladders

Man sitting at table with stout beer and whiskey
Photo by YesMore Content on Unsplash

Say it ain’t so! Some traditional brewers use animal-based finings—ingredients to clarify beer—in their brewing process. Luckily, fish gelatin and isinglass, both derived from fish bladders, are less commonly used today. Most modern breweries rely on filtration methods that are vegan-friendly.

Bread

May contain: Eggs and dairy

A standard loaf of wheat bread you buy at a grocery store.
Photo by tkraska on Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

Don’t take for granted that your favorite loaf of bread is vegan. Some products are made with eggs and/or milk. This is especially common in sweeter bread varieties. Always check the ingredients label before choosing your next loaf.

Chocolate

May contain: Milk

chopped dark chocolate
Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Think milk chocolate is the only cocoa product with milk in it? Think again. Many dark chocolate varieties also contain dairy ingredients. Chocolate made of 65% cocoa or more is less likely to contain milk, but it’s still worth checking the label before diving in.

Coffee Syrups

May contain: Dairy

Woman buying coffee at coffee shop
Photo by Kyle Ryan on Unsplash

You may want to take pause before adding a pump of flavoring to your almond milk latte. As it turns out, some of these flavoring syrups are made with dairy products. Most, but not necessarily all, transparent syrups are vegan-friendly while many opaque syrups are not.

Fake Meat

May contain: Egg whites

Fake meat on shelves at the grocery store
Photo by Peanut99 on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s easy to forget that some alternative foods are marketed for vegetarians, not vegans. There are plenty of fake meat products that fall into this category. Some Morning Star Farms and most Quorn products contain egg whites, making them vegetarian-friendly but not suitable for vegans.

French Fries

May contain: Animal fat

French fries being dropped in deep fryer
Photo by FL FLPhotography.li on Unsplash

The vast majority of French fries are fried in vegetable oil. But one of the most popular types—those golden potatoes from McDonald’s—is cooked in beef fat. Before you indulge in this fast-food favorite, be sure to inquire into the cooking methods used at your local restaurant.

Fruit Juices

May contain: Bug-based colors, fish oil, and animal-sourced vitamin D

juice aisle at the grocery store
Photo by Lindsey Turner on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sheep’s wool and fish oil in orange juice? Seriously? Most of these animal-derived ingredients are found in “fortified” juices such as orange juice with added vitamin D (which, apparently, can be harvested from wool) and omega fatty acids. But other ingredients are harder to spot, like cochineal scale, a color enhancer derived from bugs. Look for juices with limited and recognizable ingredients.

Gum

May contain: Gelatin

bins of gum
Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano on Unsplash

Many popular brands of gum, including Trident, use gelatin derived from animal bones and connective tissue to give their gum an extra chewiness. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives that are vegan-friendly, just be sure to check the label.

Gummy Candy

May contain: Gelatin

Colorful gummy bears
Photo by Amit Lahav on Unsplash

Gummy candies are another popular gelatin-containing food. Look for vegan alternatives or substitute fruit snacks, which generally do not contain gelatin.

Jam and Jelly

May contain: Gelatin

strawberry jam
Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

Traditionally made jams and jellies use pectin, a fruit derivative, as a “gelling” substance. But many mass-producers turn to gelatin as a more affordable and easier-to-use alternative. Check your labels and stick to spreads with only a few recognizable ingredients.

Margarine

May contain: Dairy and whey

margarine on a grocery store shelf
Photo by Michael on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Margarine has been the go-to butter alternative for vegans for decades, but not all these products are made with just water and vegetable oil. Some margarines use milk in place of water. Others include added ingredients like whey and casein. Double-check your labels or, better yet, opt for vegan butter.

Marshmallows

May contain: Gelatin

marshmallows and s'mores ingredients near a campfire
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

I remember being a kid and someone telling me that marshmallows were made of horse hooves. As it turns out, that isn’t entirely true. Most gelatin is made by boiling bones and connective tissue. Regardless, these childhood favorites are not vegan-friendly but vegan marshmallows are becoming more common. 

Breath Mints

May contain: Gelatin

Altoids near a computer keyboard
Photo by Jeremy Dorrough on Unsplash

Most gelatin-containing foods are squishy, but not all. Breath mints, most notably Altoids, are made with gelatin. Another great example of why checking ingredients labels is so important.

Miso Soup

May contain: Beef or chicken broth

miso soup
Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Miso, a fermented flavoring made from soybeans, is vegan. But that doesn’t mean all miso soups are. Plenty of dishes are prepared with beef or chicken broth rather than vegetable broth. Be sure to check with your server before ordering this traditional Japanese dish.

Non-Dairy Creamer

May contain: Casein

Ingredients for non-dairy creamer
Photo by Stephen Dann on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Casein is a protein found in all types of mammal milk. This ingredient is often isolated and used during cheese making and added to protein powders. It also has a nasty habit of showing up in “non-dairy” products. One of the most common examples of this is non-dairy creamers, often listed as “sodium caseinate.”

Non-Dairy Yogurt

May contain: Casein

A beautiful young woman eating yogurt at home.
Josep Suria/Shutterstock

Another place casein can be found? Some non-dairy yogurts, especially those made from soy. Instead of shopping for “non-dairy” yogurt varieties, look for products marketed as being vegan, such as Kite Hill’s coconut yogurt.

Pasta

May contain: Eggs

fresh pasta dusted with flour
Photo by Grooveland Designs on Unsplash

It’s no surprise that egg noodles contain eggs, but did you also know that many fresh pasta varieties utilize this animal ingredient? The traditional way of making Italian pasta includes folding eggs into the mix. Before reaching for that gourmet pack of fresh noodles at the farmer’s market, check the ingredient listing.

Peanuts

May contain: Gelatin

Planter's Dry-Roasted Peanuts
Photo by Bryan Pearson on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Don’t worry, that package of salted peanuts in your cupboard is probably vegan-friendly. But more exotic flavors, especially those put out by Planters, may contain gelatin. This sticky substance is used to bind the flavoring powder to the nuts themselves.

Pesto Sauce

May contain: Cheese

Pesto
Photo by Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash

It makes sense after you give it some thought, but many are surprised to learn that traditional pesto sauce contains parmesan. There are some vegan varieties available, or you can make your own basil vegan pesto sauce.

Potato Chips

May contain: Dairy and Lard

Grandma Utz's potato chips that contain lard
Photo by Like_the_Grand_Canyon on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Certain potato chip flavorings contain dried milk and other dairy ingredients. You probably know to stay away from nacho cheese and ranch flavors, but did you know most sea salt and vinegar varieties also contain milk? Another ingredient to look out for in potato chips? Lard, the fat product made by rendering the fatty tissue of pigs.

Red Food Dye

May contain: Cochineal from insects

Red dye
Photo by Umberto Salvagnin on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Many red candies and red-dye-containing foods are not vegan-friendly due to an ingredient called cochineal. Also known as carmine or carminic acid, cochineal is derived from the scales of certain bugs. It’s usually not listed separately on the ingredients list, so it’s best to opt for vegan-certified foods when dining in the red color spectrum.

Refried Beans

May contain: Lard

Traditional Refried Beans
Photo by my_amii on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Traditional refried beans are cooked in lard. This isn’t a very healthy choice for your body or for the planet. Instead, look for products advertised as “vegetarian refried beans.” Unless they contain cheese, these options should be vegan-friendly as well. Or you can remove all doubt by making our version of vegan refried beans.

Soda

May contain: Insect-derived dyes

Cola in a glass, top view
Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

A shocking number of colas use insect-derived dyes to achieve that classic red-brown hue. Figuring out exactly which brands do this is a challenge. If you’re serious about your veganhood, it may be time to trade your cola for a colorless bubbly beverage.

Sprinkles

May contain: Insect ingredients, dairy, and gelatin

Rainbow Sprinkles
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Sprinkles may seem as unthreatening as any food out there, but these colorful little decorations often hide a long list of animal ingredients. Confectioners glaze contains shellac, which is derived from insects. Red food dyes are also insect-based. Gelatin and dairy ingredients are also commonly used to make sprinkles, as well as white sugar (more on that in a minute).

Sweetened Cereals

May contain: Gelatin

Kellogg's Frosted Mini Wheats
Photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Did you know gelatin might be hiding in your favorite breakfast cereal? It’s not just Lucky Charms, either. Frosted Mini Wheats and many other “glazed” and marshmallow-containing breakfast foods contain gelatin.

Table Sugar

May contain: Bone char

Table sugar
Photo by John Watson on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

That’s right, you can’t even trust simple white sugar to be free from animal ingredients anymore. Most of these products are whitened using bone char. This ingredient, which is exactly what it sounds like, is used as a carbon filter to remove coloration from cane sugar. As if you needed another reason to avoid processed sugar.

Tortillas

May contain: Lard

Fresh tortillas
Photo by Erik Dungan on Unsplash

Like refried beans, tortillas are often made using lard. Since most people don’t even realize that this Mexican staple contains a boatload of fat, this fact often comes as a surprise. Check your ingredient labels closely or opt for fat-free wraps instead.

Waxed Fruit

May contain: Shellac and beeswax

Shiny waxed apples at a grocery store
Photo by Scott Evans on Unsplash

Because it’s not enough that bananas aren’t always vegan, you also have to worry about non-organic apples and citrus fruits. Unnaturally shiny fruits are often treated with beeswax or insect-derived shellac to give them that extra sparkle. Save yourself the trouble of figuring out what has been treated and just go organic in the produce aisle.

Wine

May contain: Casein, albumin, fish bladder

wine on shelves in store
Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash

Like beer, wine is sometimes clarified using animal-ingredient-based filters. These include everything from milk-derived casein, egg-derived albumin, and ingredients harvested from fish bladders. Unlike beer, this process is common in the wine world, even today. If you want a vegan-friendly glass of pinot, you’ll have to look for products marketed as such.

Worcestershire sauce

May contain: Fish

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
Photo by Mark Norman Francis on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This smoky staple is often made with fish sauce, and it’s not alone. Pad thai sauce and barbeque sauce also often contain fish-derived ingredients, as well. Check your ingredients list closely or, better yet, make your own Worcestershire, pad thai, and barbecue sauce.

Vanilla Flavoring

May contain: Beaver castoreum

Chocolate and Vanilla ice cream in a glass
Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

Topping our list as the most disgusting vegan-unfriendly ingredient is castoreum. This musky brown liquid comes from the castor sacs of beavers. They use this liquid to mark their territory. We use it, apparently, to flavor vanilla ice cream. This strange extract has a strong vanilla smell and taste, and since it’s natural, it’s used as a flavor additive for all-natural foods. It’s no longer commonly in use these days, but to avoid ingesting beaver bum juice you should be wary of anything that contains “natural vanilla flavor.”

Vegetable Soup

May contain: Beef or chicken broth

Vegetable Soup
Photo by Scott Veg on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Just because a soup is filled with veggies instead of meat cubes, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s vegan. Check your vegetable soup can to assure it was made with vegetable broth instead of beef or chicken broth.

Veggie Burgers

May contain: Eggs and dairy

Veggie Burger
Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

Like other fake meats, many veggie burgers are made to target vegetarians. This means they often include ingredients like eggs and cheese. Given how many brands and flavors there are on the market today, it’s always worth double-checking your labels before picking some of these planet-friendly burgers up. Or skip the patty altogether and go with this vegan chipotle mayo portobello burger instead.

Wondering What to Eat?

Now that you know how many seemingly safe foods may actually be hiding animal-based ingredients, what are you supposed to eat?

Below, we have some great recommendations for foods that are always vegan-friendly.

Protein-Packed Options

Looking for something to help you feel full and energize you to take on anything? These vegan foods are amazing protein sources that don’t contain any hidden animal products.

  • Tofu
  • Peanut Butter (avoid no-stir options that contain palm oil)
  • Cashew and Other Nut Butters
  • Quinoa
  • Whole Grains
  • Whole Wheat Bread and Flour
  • Hummus
  • Hemp Seed
  • Brown Rice
  • Whole-Grain Breakfast Cereals (without added sugar or honey)
  • Walnuts and Other Nuts
  • Chia Seeds (great source of omega-3 fatty acids, too)
  • Vegan Certified Meat Substitutes
  • Chickpeas and Other Beans
  • Lentils

Nutrient-Packed Options

A whole-food vegan diet ensures you are eating nutrient-dense foods that support better health. In fact, a whole-food, plant-based diet rich in vegan meals is one of the only proven ways to naturally reverse heart disease. This diet plan is also great for reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk, and helping with weight loss.

If you’re looking to get healthier, these nutrient-dense foods should be a part of your plant-based diet.

  • Salad Greens and Leafy Greens
  • Ginger and Turmeric
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Avocados
  • Berries
  • Oranges and Other Citrus
  • Apples and Pears
  • Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Cabbage
  • Carrots and Other Root Vegetables
  • Squash
  • Fresh Herbs
  • Seaweed
  • Tomatoes, Bell Peppers, and Other Nightshades
  • Red Onions, Garlic, and Other Allumes
  • Corn (non-GMO)
  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Fermented Vegan Foods

FAQ

What fruit isn’t vegan?

Bananas sprayed with crustacean-derived preservatives and fruit waxed with beeswax are not vegan. Technically speaking, either are some fig species, due to the potential for dead wasps to be trapped inside. But most commercial figs are not pollinated by wasps and those that are are still certified vegan because wasp pollination and their subsequent death are a natural process.

Are Oreos vegan?

No, they most likely are not. Oreos do not contain gelatin, dairy, or the other animal ingredients you might expect. However, they do contain refined sugar which is often processed using bone char.

Is popcorn vegan?

Yes, plain popcorn is vegan. However, many flavored popcorn varieties contain butter and some are dusted with powdered milk. To be safe, opt for vegan-certified flavors only.

More Help with Plant-Based Foods

Looking for more information on how to structure and stick to a plant-based diet? Check out these articles for guidance and inspiration:

If you enjoy these vegan tips, be sure to sign up for our newsletter. We’ll send you more great vegan content like this each week.

Final Takeaways

If this list has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t trust a food to be vegan just because it seems like it should be. To avoid any animal-ingredient accidents, we recommend reading labels closely before digging in. And, better yet, do what you can to patronize certified vegan food brands as often as possible.

Have you come across a food you were surprised to learn was not vegan? Let us know what it was in the comments section below.

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