How to work out if something is vegan, not vegan or 'vegan by accident'
Allergen labels vs ingredients
A few non-vegans have told me that they have refrained from purchasing specific items for their vegan friends or family because they spotted a sentence explaining that the item 'may contain' an animal product.
Those with allergies will want that allergen label taken into consideration. Others will have different reasons for avoiding items that bear the risk of cross-contamination. However, the majority of vegans I know are fine with consuming items that have vegan ingredients, even if there's a warning that says it 'may contain' something that's not vegan.
Non-vegan ingredients to look out for
If you are making or buying something for this group of people, then you'll need to look out for the following when you're checking the ingredients: -
albumen or albumin
cod liver oil
vitamin D - may be derived from an animal, and it can be vegan too
glycerin or glycerine, glycerol, lactic acid, mono or diglycerides, and stearic acid - may be derived from an animal, and it can be vegan too
If the item is labelled vegan and contains the last two items in the list above, you'll know they contain the vegan version of it. If it isn't labelled as vegan, the label might state the source of the item within the ingredients, which will help you figure out if it's vegan or not. If it doesn't have either of these, you could ask the producer. I have done this by emailing them from their website and asking on Twitter or Facebook.
Some people are aware that white sugar may have been refined using bone char, and many people think that brown sugar escapes this process. However, brown sugar may be white sugar mixed with molasses. Therefore, it's best to check the label, ask the producer or seek help from a list like this one. Sainsbury's have made it easy for customers to search for vegan sugar on their site.
These E numbers are nearly always sourced from an animal
E120 i.e. carmine
E441 ie. gelatine
E542 i.e. bone phosphate
E901 i.e. beeswax
E904 i.e. shellac
E910, E920, E921 i.e. l-cysteine and its derivatives
E913 i.e. lanolin
E966 i.e. lactitol
When they say it's not vegan but it is
In the past, although I've specifically asked whether the ingredients are vegan or not, I've been told they're not when they actually are! Often I've gone back to find out which of the ingredients isn't vegan, after which I've been told that it's not vegan due to the risk of cross-contamination.
Here's what I usually ask:-
Please can you tell me if any of the ingredients in .... are not vegan. I'm not worried about cross-contamination, and only want to know if the ingredients are vegan or not.
This usually gets me the answer I need in one go, without having to go back and forth. You'll be surprised as to how many items are vegan by accident! This article shows some of the biscuits and crackers that are vegan by accident.
Animal ingredients are what they are by PETA
Vegan label reading guide by Veganaury
E numbers: what are they?
Non-vegan ingredients where you may not expect them
How to avoid buying non-vegan products by The Vegan Society