Why You Should Read Labels (& How to Start)
Have you ever enjoyed a “naturally flavored” berry soda? Did you know that the delicious “natural” berry flavor could actually be made from a beaver’s sex gland secretions? This ingredient is technically called “castoreum,” but few (if any) companies put the proper name on their labels, instead simply calling it a “natural flavor.” Ingredients such as these are one of the many reasons why it’s essential to be an educated and thorough label reader.
From chicken feathers to beef fat, beaver “secretions” to wood pulp, from a calf’s stomach lining to plastic by-products, many of the ingredients that pass as safe and ethical for consumption are, in truth, unpalatable to both body and mind.
Personally, I will not put anything in my shopping cart, on my body, or in my body without reading the label and understanding what is in the item first. I happily adopted this practice after becoming vegan and recognizing that knowing what is in the products I purchase is not an inconvenience, but rather, a right that we should all be exercising. I think every vegan, heck everyone, should be a label reader and researcher and here are some of the reasons why.
Many companies design their products to look “organic,” “natural,” or “vegan,” but that doesn’t mean they actually are. For example, some margarine companies go as far as to mark their spreads as “dairy-free” while still using casein in them, which is the principle protein in milk. Companies such as these are counting on you not reading the label.
And make no mistake: These “by-products” of the animal industry aren’t given away to the companies who use them. They’re sold, helping to make the primary products more profitable. Therefore, every item made with these ingredients directly supports the continued exploitation of the animals they were taken from.
While it’s true that some animal products may be unavoidable at this time, such as those used in the manufacture of cars and computers, there are a multitude of healthy vegan foods and personal care products that can be purchased, grown or made at home without compromise. Not being able to avoid some animal ingredients doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t avoid the ones we can.
“When it comes to vegan advocacy, some claim that reading labels is a “turn off,” making veganism seem more difficult and demanding. Some go as far as to claim that instead of reading labels it is best to purchase items, in restaurants and grocery stores, that appear at first glance to have “the least amount of suffering attached to them” or are the “most vegan.”
I, on the other hand, encourage you to view reading labels and asking questions as a natural part of purchasing any product. The short moments you take to read a label or ask a question will impact the choices you make and the companies you trust. As for those who see you happily poring over packages and kindly questioning waiters, don’t be afraid of “turning them off.” These are ideal opportunities to practice your commitment to nonviolence and you should feel good about doing so!
My tips for reading labels:
Whenever I’m in a grocery store, I use a very simple method to select the brands and items I choose to buy.
First, my eyes scan the shelves in search of what I’m looking for, or whatever catches my eye along the way. I pick it up, flip it over and start reading the label. If I’ve purchased the item before, I scan it quickly, if I haven’t purchased it before, I give it a good look over. And if it meets my approval, in the shopping basket it goes.
When I find an ingredient listed that I don’t know, like Natural Red 4, I set the product down and make myself a note for later. Once I’m home, I either call the company or look the ingredient up online. (There are smartphone apps that can help you with this as well.)
Researching ingredients can also be an opportunity to educate the company itself (if I speak to a representative) about what is important to their potential customers. After all, it is we, the consumers, who truly hold the power to change these practices.
With that in mind, here are my tips for new label-readers:
• Don’t let it stress you out: It won’t take hours to do, and it becomes much quicker over time. Besides, the time it takes to scan a product label is time well-spent, and every time you do so you’re reinforcing your commitment to making informed and ethical purchases.
• Get an ingredients app: If you have a smartphone, there are now apps you can download to help you learn where ingredients come from and whether they are vegan or not. If you don’t have a portable electronic device, you can always use one of the many ingredient directories online to look them up from home or a library.
• Look for “vegan” labels: Many companies are starting to become vegan certified or mark their products as “vegan” on the package so you don’t necessarily have to scan the entire ingredients list. I still give the label a quick skim to make sure there isn’t anything else in it that I don’t want to be eating or using, but the “vegan” label can help reassure you that the product you’re buying is or has stayed vegan, as some companies change their ingredients over time.
• Start with the nutrition panel: If the product isn’t clearly marked as vegan, a good place to start is the cholesterol percentage listed in the nutritional panel. If there is cholesterol in the product you are looking at, then there is an animal derived ingredient in it, as all plant-based food is 100% cholesterol free. If there is cholesterol in the item, then I put it back on the shelf and move on. If there is no cholesterol in the product, I continue to read the label to see if there are any potentially suspect ingredients.
• Don’t be afraid to call companies: Some ingredients can come from both animal and plant origins, such as glycerin for instance. When you find one of these ingredients listed on a label, it’s a good opportunity to call the company and find out where they source their ingredients from.
Be proud to be an informed label reader! View it as an opportunity to educate yourself about the products you’re purchasing and the ethics of the companies that are providing those products.