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Brace yourselves - these nine things aren't actually vegan

And no, we're not talking about avocados

Ashitha Nagesh

When I first went vegan, at the start of my 20s, I quickly learned the most annoying thing about it was the interrogation you often get from non-vegans. 

First it was: "Where do you get your protein?" Lentils, tofu, seitan (protein that looks and tastes uncannily like meat).

Then it was: "If you were on a desert island with only a sheep, would you eat the sheep?" Er, no, I'd eat whatever plants the sheep had been eating to stay alive.

And then, when one of us tries to pitch vegan recipes to a food magazine, we get an editor saying they'd rather write about "killing" us "one by one". Charming. 

Now it seems we have to deal with people "revealing" the things we previously assumed were vegan - avocados, for example - are actually, supposedly, not vegan. They reckon because migratory bees are used in the farming process, as they are in most fruit and veg, avocados are now out. 

“A-HA!” they scream, delighted, shoving avocado memes in our faces while chomping on a steak.

Fortunately, vegan groups have largely dismissed the claims, pointing out the most widely-accepted definition of veganism is avoiding animal products “as far as is possible and practicable”. 

But there are other things you’d assume were vegan that are genuinely not - and it’s good to be aware of these so you can seek out animal-friendly alternatives and avoid calls of "HYPOCRISY" from annoying omni colleagues or your mate’s grumpy 'caveman diet' dad.

So without further ado, these are the things you need to look out for.

Cigarettes

Yup! Not only are cigarettes really, really, really bad for you but some of them also contain something called castoreum. 

What, I hear you ask, is castoreum?

Brace yourselves animal lovers - it’s not pretty.

Castoreum is a secretion from glands near a beaver's rectum.

That’s right - there could be beaver butt juice in your cigarette.

Vegan beaveriStock
'It's made from what now?'

Not only is castoreum used to enhance the flavour of a pack of smokes (mmm, nothing like inhaling beaver anus glands), but it’s also used in certain perfumes, and some low-cost vanilla flavouring. 

Soft drinks

Those of you who have been vegan for a while may remember the Great Juice Beef (pun intended) of 2014.

If not, it started when blogger Sean O'Callaghan (aka Fat Gay Vegan) found out some companies used gelatine to clarify their fruit juices - that is, bone marrow taken from pigs and cows. Ew.

The revelation sent FGV and his followers on a mission to find out how many drinks companies in the UK were using non-vegan ingredients or clarifying processes. 

And so it transpired some companies did indeed use gelatine in their juices, while some others could technically be seen as non-vegan because the fruits used are glazed in shellac - the resin secreted by the female lac bug (although don't worry, Shellac nail polish doesn't actually contain any bugs - it's just a brand name). 

Some fizzy drinks were exposed, too - including Diet Pepsi and Lilt - although regular Pepsi and Pepsi Max are vegan. 

Which brings us neatly on to our next item…

Some ciders

Yep, it’s not just plain old juice that has animal derivatives in it - some fruit-flavoured ciders do too.

The vegan world was pretty upset when it came out that fruity Rekorderlig, Bulmers and Strongbow were all off limits - some because they use gelatine, others because they use cochineal. 

In case you didn’t know, cochineal comes from beetle shells

However, you don’t have to give up fruity ciders forever (phew). Old Mout ciders are vegan, as is pear-flavoured Magners. 

Wine

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Wine, aka fish juice (sort of)

"Gah! Not wine! Wine is just made from grapes! Grapes!"

Yeah yeah, I hear you. But again, it’s about how it’s made. Most wine is made using the fining agent isinglass, to make it appear clearer and brighter.

Isinglass, for the uninitiated, is a type of gelatine made using the swim bladder of fish.

Bleargh.

There are some decent vegan wines out there if you know where to look - although it does mean you can’t just order the house as often as you’d like. 

Beer

Yup, sorry - not even beer is sacred.

Luckily, vegan beer is becoming easier to find - but there are still quite a few that use isinglass or gelatine as fining agents.

OK, I know I basically just trashed all of your night-out staples - but don’t worry, you needn’t go teetotal just yet.

The good thing about being vegan nowadays (as opposed to, say, 30 years ago) is that there’s always someone on the internet who’s done the hard research for you. When it comes to drinks, one of those guys is Jason Doucette, who set up a site called Barnivore.

It's essentially a non-profit, crowdsourced directory which lists whether drinks are vegan-friendly or not. There are almost 42,000 entries on there, most of which were sent in by people who’ve contacted companies directly to ask.

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Thank god for vegan beer

“Unfortunately labelling isn't common in the drinks industry, so it's not always obvious if something is vegan or not,” Jason tells BBC Three. “And most rules of thumb that people use have been proved false over the years.”

But he remains hopeful that’s all changing.

“We've seen great progress over the years, most notably with Guinness' relatively recent switch away from isinglass, and many responses we get from non-vegan companies include comments indicating they're looking into vegan-friendly alternatives,” he adds.

“It's possible some of those are just trying to soften the message but we've seen a number of them follow through and update their lines to be accessible to vegan and vegetarian consumers.”

Cereal 

Some cereals - most of the ones which contain chocolatey bits, for instance - are quite clearly not vegan. Chocolate is often made with milk and so etc. etc. - you get the picture...

However, supposedly innocuous cereals can be hiding animal products, like whey, which is derived from milk, or lanolin, which comes from sheep’s wool and is added to most vitamin D3 supplements.

Dominika Piasecka, from the Vegan Society, tells BBC Three that as a rule of thumb, if something is fortified with vitamin D3, then it probably has lanolin in it.

“It’s the grease extracted by washing the wool in hot water with a detergent,” she explains.

Not ideal.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of good vegan cereals out there and they’re not even that hard to find. Just keep an eye on the ingredients.

Sweets

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Even these are off-limits :(

As a vegetarian child, I was well accustomed to turning down cola bottles and jelly beans because, well, gelatine. “It has cow bones in it!” I would proclaim, delighting in the horror and disgust of my fellow seven year olds. Mwahaha.

Surprisingly, even now as a grown-up, explaining why I’m turning down jelly sweets still elicits the same reaction from others. So I’m assuming a lot of people don’t know that gelatine is what makes sweets jelly-like.

However, even this has improved somewhat in the last few years. Now you can get vegan jelly beans and Skittles are vegan too. There are vegan substitutes for gelatine that sweet-makers can use, which is great.

But alas, unless you’re buying specifically vegan sweets, gelatine still tends to be the norm.

Worcestershire sauce

When I was a child (yep, we’re going back in time again), I once ate Worcestershire sauce on cheese on toast and vomited the entire thing up, because I had - and still have - a pretty bad fish allergy.

That is how I learned that Worcestershire sauce has anchovies in it. However, not everyone is so lucky.

Dominika, from the Vegan Society, tells me when she first went vegan, she bought a bottle of the stuff and only glanced at the ingredient list by chance when she got home.

“I did get caught out by this one," she says. "I had to go back to the shop and return it."

And finally...

Icing sugar

You may have heard that regular white sugar is non-vegan because they filter it using bone char - that is, charred and powdered animal bone. BUT you’ll be pleased to know that that really only applies in the US. In the UK, most regular sugar brands are vegan.

There is one exception to this, though - icing sugar.

It doesn’t use bone char but some of the most popular brands of icing sugar contain dried egg white.

It’s a bit more of a pain to find a vegan option here, although if you search for “vegan icing sugar”, you can find brands that sell online.

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We prefer our sugar egg and bone free, TYVM

Alternatively, if you have a spice grinder and a lot of time on your hands, you can make your own icing sugar by adding a bit of cornflour to regular sugar and blending it.

So there you go, the more you know, the better prepared you are.

But if you have slipped up and had any of these, don't beat yourself up about it - most vegans agree it doesn’t make you a hypocrite. These are hidden ingredients and are very easy to miss if you don't know they're there. 

Vegans avoid animal products because, most of the time, there are decent vegan alternatives about - especially in all of the cases above, once you know about them.

Besides, at least avocados are still vegan, so we don’t need to panic just yet. You’ll probably want to avoid the beaver butt cigarettes though.

Wondering which sports stars are vegan, too? Check them out here...

Originally published 1 November 2018