Grocery shopping can be intimidating for new vegetarians: off-limits ingredients abound, and questionable products seem to lurk in every aisle. Is there lard in those beans? Anchovies in that dressing? When in doubt, use this handy cheat sheet to identify the most common supermarket foods and drinks that might not pass the veg test—and learn how to replace them with suitable substitutions.
1. Alcohol You won’t find an ingredients list on most bottles, but isinglass (fish bladders), gelatin (animal skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments), and crab shells are just a few of the “fining agents” sometimes used to clarify alcohol. Check out barnivore.com to see if your favorite wine, beer, or booze was made with veg-friendly fining agents.
2. Caesar Dressing Anchovies give this popular salad dressing its signature salty kick. We love Follow Your Heart’s creamy fish-free alternative, which gets plenty of zing from veg Worcestershire sauce and a hint of mustard. Great for vegans, it’s made without Parmesan cheese and egg yolks, two other standard Caesar ingredients.
3. Cheese Parmesan, Romano, and other old-school-style cheeses typically contain animal rennet—a cheesemaking ingredient extracted from the stomachs of calves, kids (goats), or lambs that’s often simply labeled “enzymes.” Read VT's shopping guide, and stick with cheeses that state they’re made with microbial or vegetable rennet, or no rennet at all. (Psst: BelGioioso makes a vegetarian Parmesan wedge.)
4. French Onion Soup Beef stock may be providing the rich base for this comfort-food classic, so check the fine print on any supermarket can. Ordering it at a restaurant? It might also contain Parmesan and Gruyere cheeses made with animal rennet. Ask your server.
5. Gummy Treats Along with gummy vitamins and Starburst candies, conventional gummy bears and worms get their chewy texture from gelatin. Come Halloween, offer trick-or-treaters gummy treats that use fruit pectin instead—we promise they won't be able to taste the difference.
6. Jell-O This jiggly childhood dessert is almost synonymous with gelatin. Find veg equivalents in the baking aisle of natural foods stores, or make your own using a thickening agent such as arrowroot powder or agar powder, derived from algae.
7. Kimchi A Korean staple believed to aid digestion, this spicy concoction of pickled veggies is traditionally fermented with fish sauce or dried shrimp. Look for jars that skip the seafood, such as Mother-in-Law’s Vegan Napa Cabbage Kimchi. Use kimchi to add heat to veggie burgers, eggs, rice, and tacos.
8. Marshmallows Sorry, s’mores lovers: your favorite fluffy pillows contain gelatin. That goes for marshmallow-y treats such as Peeps and Rice Krispies Treats too. Have your campfire fun with vegan marshmallows made by Dandies or Sweet & Sara; vegetarians can also grab Marshmallow Fluff, which is gelatin-free (but contains dried egg whites).
9. Refried Beans Look out for lard in cans of refried beans, especially “traditional” versions. Some Mexican restaurants may also use animal fat in their bean and tortilla recipes, so be sure to ask. Luckily, it’s easy to find vegetarian refried beans cooked in oil. Amy’s Kitchen and Pacific Foods make a few VT favorites.
10. Worcestershire Sauce You can find a laundry list of ingredients—including anchovies—in this umami-rich condiment added to burgers, barbecue sauces, Bloody Mary cocktails, and more. For equally pungent, veg Worcestershire, try Annie’s Naturals or The Wizard’s, or swap in soy sauce.
Shop Smart Restocking your kitchen? Follow these pro tips for veg-savvy grocery shopping: Inspect the label Read all ingredients carefully to avoid mix-ups. “The same brand may have a veg and a non-veg option of the same type of food,” notes Lindsay Nixon, author of The Happy Herbivore Guide to Plant-Based Living. Go natural Change up your supermarket routine. Nixon suggests visiting health food stores for a wider variety of veg-friendly goodies. (And if you’re lucky enough to live near an exclusively vegetarian market, hop to it.) Make it yourself “Vegetarian versions of sauces can be expensive,” says Nixon. “A homemade version is a fraction of the cost!” Get easy recipes for veg kimchi, Caesar dressing, French onion soup, and more in VT's extensive recipe database.