These 12 Sneaky Foods Are Actually *Not* Vegan

Please explain why there’s fish in this OJ.

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You did it: You made the switch to a completely plant-based diet. You’re getting braver about asking waiters if there’s egg in the dinner rolls, getting faster at skimming ingredients lists for whey, and getting savvier at packing portable snacks wherever you go, just in case there’s nothing but fettuccini alfredo and burgers on the menu.

And then, to your horror, it happens: You see “contains milk” written on the back of that bag of chips. Milk? On lime-flavored tortilla chips? And after you’ve already eaten half the bag.

It’s almost impossible to avoid those dreaded vegan diet mistakes entirely. One way to keep these moments to a minimum is staying informed about common (and unexpected) places that animal products may hide.

Of course, if it’s not vegetarian, it’s not vegan, so first check out these foods that you think are vegetarian, but aren’t. But eggs, dairy, and honey require another layer of scrutiny. Here are 12 sneaky foods that aren’t actually vegan.

  1. Lactose-free milk, like Lactaid. Since this milk is easier to digest for people who are lactose intolerant, some people may assume it’s not real milk. Cow’s milk contains a sugar called lactose, and that’s the part of the milk that some people can’t tolerate. PSA: This product is still dairy, just without the lactose.

  2. Some deep-fried foods, like onion rings. Most of your favorite breaded and fried appetizers use egg in the batter to help the breading stick. And if you want to get really particular, they are often fried in the same deep fryer as the restaurant’s fried chicken or buffalo wings—but it’s up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with.

  3. Non-dairy creamer. Don’t you love it when words lie to you?! Despite claiming to be “not dairy,” these coffee creamers still contain the caseinate protein found in dairy. This allows them to last longer without spoiling, compared to creamers made with full-blown dairy.

  4. Some veggie burgers. OK, that’s just not fair. Veggie burgers, garden salads, and French fries are often reliable items for vegans when eating at omnivore restaurants, but sadly, some veggie burgers use egg as a binder. With the growth of veganism, more brands are nixing the egg in their patties, and many restaurants are doing the same in their house-made bean burgers. (Learn how to make a vegan quinoa burger at home.)

  5. Most margarines. These spreads are thought of as faux butter, but they actually still contain dairy. They are primarily made from vegetable oils and emulsifiers, but some milk is often included to lend a more authentic buttery flavor.

  6. Some chip flavors. You can probably guess that any chip with a name like “white cheddar” or “sour cream and onion” contains dairy. What’s less obvious is flavors like “twist of lime” or “spicy sriracha.” Some chips use whey or milkfat powder to achieve a certain mouthfeel or flavor, so it’s wise to check the ingredients of your salty snacks.

  7. Some granola and snack bars. To achieve their “wholesome” status, many brands use honey as a sweetener. Check out these rules for finding a healthy snack bar.

  8. Gluten-free breads and crackers. Gluten helps create a spongy, chewy texture in breads. Gluten-free products often compensate for the missing gluten with an egg, which can help achieve a similar texture. It’s tricky, but not impossible, to find gluten-free baked goods that are eggless.

  9. Pesto. It looks vibrant, green, and totally veg-friendly, but Parmesan cheese is a prominent ingredient in this classic pasta sauce. Thankfully, it’s easy to make at home and omit the cheese.

  10. Some dark chocolate. You know milk chocolate contains milk (obviously), so logically, dark chocolate should be sans dairy. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Some brands add milkfat to even their darkest bars; others offer dairy-free dark chocolate for bars above 70 percent cacao.  As always, check the label. Here are rules for buying healthier chocolate.

  11. Anything with gelatin. This ingredient—which is made from animal parts like cow or pig hooves—shows up in a wide range of places: marshmallows, gummy candy, Jell-O, fruit snacks, Starburst, Altoid mints, and the frosting on Pop-Tarts and frosted shredded wheat cereal.  

  12. Fortified orange juice. Brace yourself: Orange juice marketed as “heart healthy” has a fishy ingredient added. For an omega-3 boost, these fortified OJs may contain fish oil. (If you need more omega-3s in your vegan diet, try flax or chia seeds.)

Checking labels and asking questions can help you avoid most vegan “oopsies,” but don’t beat yourself up for these slip-ups. It happens! Just make a mental note, learn from it, and move on.

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