Vegan Wonder

Unmasking the Hidden: A Comprehensive Guide to Spotting Animal Ingredients on Labels

In the age of Whole Foods, Beyond Meat, and plant-based everything, one might think that it is easier than ever to avoid consuming animals and their byproducts. But here’s a little secret: if you think that vegan cheese is the only dairy-based food you need to avoid, think again.

Surprisingly, a ton of everyday products contain animal-derived ingredients, often in disguise. Case in point: did you know that some vitamin D supplements are derived from sheep’s wool? Or that certain red lipsticks contain crushed bugs? Yep, it’s true. And unless you’re an avid label reader, you might not even realize it.

Why Reading Labels Matters

As consumers, we have more power than we realize. With each dollar spent, we are casting a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. As awareness around animal rights and climate change grows, more and more people are choosing to spend their money in ways that align with these values. In turn, companies are starting to respond to this demand.

But until then, we need to be savvy shoppers and read those labels. Because if we don’t, who knows what animal-derived ingredients we might be accidentally supporting?

Don’t worry, though. We’ve got your back. Read on for a guide to spotting some of the most common (and not-so-common) animal-derived ingredients on product labels.

Common Animal-Derived Ingredients to Watch Out For


What it is: Gelatin is a protein derived from collagen, which is found in the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals. It is most commonly sourced from cows and pigs.

How it’s used: Gelatin is used as a thickening agent in foods like Jell-O, marshmallows, and gummy candies, as well as in certain medicines.

How to spot it: Gelatin is often listed as “beef gelatin” or “pork gelatin” on food labels, but it can also be listed simply as “gelatin.” It’s important to note that if a food product contains gelatin but is labeled as vegetarian or vegan, it is likely made from kosher animal bones, so be extra cautious.

If you want to avoid gelatin but aren’t vegan, make sure to look for vegan alternatives like agar agar, pectin, or carrageenan.

Whey and Casein

What they are: Whey and casein are dairy-based milk proteins. Whey is the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production, while casein is the curds that are turned into cheese.

How they’re used: Whey and casein are used as additives in a huge variety of foods, including ice cream, yogurt, cheese, protein powders, energy bars, and even baked goods like cakes and cookies.

How to spot them: Whey and casein can be listed under a number of different names, so it’s important to know what to look for. Common names include:

  • Whey protein
  • Whey powder
  • Milk protein
  • Casein
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Calcium caseinate

If you want to avoid these dairy-based ingredients, make sure to read labels carefully. Look for plant-based protein powders, plant-based milk powders, and other plant-based additives.


What it is: Lanolin is a waxy substance derived from sheep’s wool. It is often used in personal care products like lotions, moisturizing creams, and lip balms.

How it’s used: Lanolin is used to soften and moisturize skin. It is often used in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products because it mimics the natural oils of the skin.

How to spot it: Lanolin may be listed on product labels as “wool fat,” “animal fat,” or simply “lanolin.” Be sure to read labels carefully and look for plant-based alternatives if you want to avoid this wool-derived ingredient.

Carmine/Cochineal Extract

What it is: Carmine, also known as cochineal extract, is a red pigment derived from the cochineal beetle. It is most commonly sourced from South America.

How it’s used: Carmine is used as a natural food colorant, particularly in fruits like strawberries and cherries, as well as in drinks like wine and some brands of cranberry juice. It is also commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products.

How to spot it: Carmine can sometimes be listed as “natural red #4” on food labels. In the US, it is required to be listed on the label of foods and cosmetics, but in some countries it may be listed as a flavoring rather than a colorant, so be sure to read labels carefully.

Decoding Ingredient Lists

When it comes to reading labels and spotting animal-derived ingredients, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, it’s important to know that not all ingredients are listed by their common names. For example, vitamin D3 is most commonly derived from sheep’s wool, but it can also be derived from plants. If you see vitamin D3 listed on a label, you won’t know whether it’s vegan or not unless you know that the ingredient can also be plant-derived. In this case, always refer to the scientific or Latin name of the ingredient.

That brings us to our next point: learn the scientific names of the animal-derived ingredients you want to avoid. For example, gelatin is always listed as Gelatin on ingredient labels, so you’ll want to learn what that looks like in the Latin alphabet.

You should also familiarize yourself with ambiguous ingredients like “natural flavors” and “vitamin D.” While most vitamin D is derived from animals, there are plant-based sources, so it’s important to ask the manufacturer which form they use.

When in doubt, don’t hesitate to reach out to the manufacturer. You can usually find their contact information on the website or on the back of the package. If the company doesn’t respond or if you’re not satisfied with their answer, consider reaching out to a certifying organization like Vegan Action or the Vegetarian Society to report the issue.

It’s also a good idea to prioritize brands that are transparent about their ingredients. Look for certifications like Certified Vegan or Certified Vegetarian to ensure that the brand is held to a higher standard of transparency.

Empowering Informed Choices

Now that you know how to spot some of the most common animal-derived ingredients on product labels, you’re ready to start making more informed purchasing decisions. As you shop, keep this guide handy and refer to it often. The more you practice reading labels and identifying these hidden animal-derived ingredients, the quicker it will become second nature.

Remember, your dollar is a vote. By choosing to support brands that are transparent about their ingredients, you’re helping to push the industry in a more ethical and sustainable direction. Keep advocating for clearer labeling standards and don’t be afraid to speak up when you notice a brand isn’t being transparent.

You’ve got this!