Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What's lurking in your food and why vegetarians should always read nutrition labels

When you're a vegetarian, ingredients in store bought foods and nutritional information isn't just "nice to have." It's a necessity. If I had a nickel for every time I found an animal by-product in a seemingly meat free item in the grocery store, I wouldn't be sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours a day. I'm also often surprised when meat eaters don't realize when an item is derived from animals. But I guess if you eat meat, you don't try to think about those things.

Here are some of the items I most often find in foods when I'm reading labels:
  • Gelatin - often found in dairy products - sour cream, processed cheese, yogurt - especially "low-fat" varieties since gelatin can be used to make a product creamier - but watch out! It pops up in really unexpected foods sometimes, like frozen vegetables in sauce and even some cereals.
  • Rennet - derived from the stomach lining of animals - is used to make cheese. Many companies have started to use synthetic rennet, but until that trend takes hold, beware!
  • Glycerin - in the gelatin family - found in all sorts of products from gum to soaps. However, vegetable glycerin is made from plants and is suitable for vegetarians.

Some products to avoid or at least scrutinize before you buy:

  • Certain types of beer and wine - use isinglass - made out of fish bladders - as a part of the production process. It's important to do your research before you take a drink. A little google-ing goes a long way.
  • Worcester Sauce - contains anchovies unless you buy a product specifically labeled "vegan."
  • Yogurt - especially whipped or non-organic varieties typically contain gelatin.
  • Anything that is colored red or orange - may have red #40 (also called carmine), which is derived from bugs - BUGS!

A helpful tip that one of my friends gave me in regards to reviewing food labels is to look for the Kosher symbol on dairy products. If a dairy item has the Kosher symbol on it, most likely there aren't any meat additives along with it since according to Jewish law, meat and dairy cannot be eaten together.

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