The Vegan Experience

The Vegan Experience, Day 10: Surprise! 7 Foods You Thought Were Vegan!

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Days 10: Monday

Breakfast: Sliced grapefruit; toast with beans.
Lunch: Raw food from Gingersnap's Organic
Dinner: Tofu with Flowering Chives and Hot Pepper in Roasted Chili-Bean Sauce. Steamed Bok Choy. Rice.

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Raw daikon "ramen" from Gingersnap's Organic

Sometimes it's the people you love the most that can do you the most harm. In yesterday's look into nutrition, I came to the realization that the multi-vitamins my wife has been dutifully feeding to me* in order to assure that my B12 intake didn't suffer during my Vegan Experience are made with—gasp!—gelatin! Are you trying to poison me, dear wife?

*"You can do this if your job demands it, but I'm not letting you sacrifice your health!" she says.

Yep, you caught me. Ten days in, and I've already failed in my attempts to go 100% vegan. Here's a little secret: it's not the first time I've realized this. Let me list the other times I've accidentally "cheated."

Day 2: I had a dinner party. After dinner one guest asked if I had any ice cream. I pulled out a pint of homemade olive oil gelato I had leftover from Christmas dinner. As a trained cook, I instinctively taste every single thing I make before serving it to make sure it's good enough. I took a bite before remembering it was made with eggs and milk. Oopsy.

Day 3: Having successfully put my wool coat away for the month, I felt good about my adherence so far. Until my wife pointed out my leather wallet. D'oh!

Day 4: After rationalizing that in no circumstance does it make sense for someone transitioning into veganism to be wasteful and buy a brand new wallet when the one they have is perfectly functional, I once again felt pretty good. Until my wife pointed out that our comforter is stuffed with down. Darn it.

Day 8: I had a lovely time with my wife at Red Rooster, enjoying the crowd and the nice cocktails. Until she pointed out that the sip of her Bee's Knees was made with honey.

Day 9: In planning a vegan cheese tasting, I did a bit of pre-research by tasting a bite of Galaxy brand Veggie Slices. Turns out "veggie slices" are not only not vegan, they're not even dairy free! They're made with casein, a protein derived from milk. Dang it!

As you can see, it's quite a few times, and those are only the ones that I know of. I'm sure there are others that slipped under the radar.

For those of you following closely, you might point out that I owe reader Nicholas Bird a video of me bocking like a chicken with a KFC bucket on my head. I plan on delivering on that promise as soon as this month is up.

There are a number of ways I could go about this. I could take the hardcore approach and start analyzing each and every bit of stuff that enters my mouth or gets placed on my body, mentally and physically flagellating myself for each infraction. Alternatively, I could not beat myself up over it, learn from my mistakes, and try not to make them again in the future.

I think I'll stick with option two.

The thing is, as long as you are actively conscious about eliminating meat, dairy, and cheese from your diet, you've already done 99% of the work. Getting rid of that wallet, avoiding that sip of beer from your friends' cup, it may get you incrementally closer to 100%, but fact is, nobody is ever going to get to 100%.

Lighten up, go easy on yourself, and be proud of the enormous amount you've done already is my attitude.

That said, here are a few more things you might be interested to know are not vegan-friendly.

7 Foods You Thought Were Vegan

After that whole non-vegetarian veggie cheese debacle, I decided to do a bit of research into other foods that are commonly thought to be vegan. Turns out there are a few surprises. Here are some:

1. Veggie Cheese Slices. This is the one that makes no sense to me: make sub-standard cheese slices out of soy flour and oil, then flavor it with a milk product. What the heck? If I was OK eating milk products, why wouldn't I just buy some real cheese? Perhaps these are aimed at lactose intolerant cheese lovers. Two problems with that: first, any kind of aged cheese has very little lactose in it. Secondly, the package clearly says "Veggie Slices" on it, not "Lactose-free" slices. It's marketed to vegans and thus the inclusion of a milk product is, to my mind, totally irresponsible at best and outright reprehensibly deceptive at worst. Check out the ingredients in Galaxy Nutritional Foods Veggie Slices.

To be fair, Galaxy Nutritional Foods also makes a 100% vegan cheese slice. Unfortunately, it crawled in at a very distant last place in our American cheese tasting.

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[Photograph: Sarah Postma]

2. Beer and Wine. OK, not all beer and wine, but a lot of them are clarified using a variety of animal-based fining agents. Gelatin (from animal bones), isinglass (from fish bladders), bone marrow, and casein are all common. My wine is filtered through fish bladders? Sorry to say, it's quite possible. The good news: Barnivore.com has a comprehensive list of exactly which beers and wines are vegan friendly.

3. Red Dye. Carmine, which also goes by the names Crimson Lake, Cochineal, Carminic Acid, and Natural Red #4, a is a red dye derived from tiny red parasitic scale insects. Yep, that red soda is colored with bug juice. Don't worry, it's perfectly safe and not as gross as it seems. Due to the amount of processing it gets, the dye is pretty far removed from its entomological roots. But if you're vegan or keep kosher, you'll want to avoid anything colored with it. You'll find it in everything ranging from candies to older bottles of Campari (newer bottlers use an artificial red dye).

4. Some Dry-Roasted Nuts. Nuts are vegan power-food, packed with protein and fat, they make a great snack. But look out: some brands of dry-roasted nuts use a gelatin-based coating to get the salt and flavorings to stick. (For instance, Planters peanuts and sunflower seeds).

5. Non-Dairy Creamer. Falling into that same WTF?!? category as the veggie cheese, most non-dairy creamers contain—get this—dairy! That's right. Just like the cheese slices, non-dairy creamers are flavored with casein or sodium caseinate, both of which are derived from milk. (Check out the ingredients in coffeemate, for instance).

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6. Gummy Bears and Marshmallows. A pretty obvious one. Both are made with gelatin, which is derived from animal bones and tissue. Leave 'em out of the cart. In fact, the candy aisle is a veritable minefield of non-vegan products. Also on the list: Altoids. Pretty much any chocolate. Most gummy snacks. Skittles, thankfully, have recently made the switch to vegan-friendly gelatin. I don't eat much candy so this list doesn't bother me much, but if any of you vegans out there still want to get your sugar on, Peta Kids has a good list of vegan candies and snacks. There's a lot PETA does that I don't jibe with, but that's some good info to have on hand.

7. White Sugar. It comes from a plant. How could it not be vegan? It's got to do with the refining process. In order to get rid of all the impurities in natural sugar, it gets processed with animal bone char. Of course, depending on where you live, there's a good chance that even your water is filtered through animal bone char. Uh oh.

The list goes on and on. Steel. Rubber. Plastic bags. Omega-3 enriched "Heart Healthy" orange juice. General anesthetics. Worcestershire sauce. Roasted suckling pig.

Unless you're living 100% off the grid, at some level even the strictest vegan is going to be unknowingly cheating somewhere down the line, so it's important to remember the qualifier in the vegan mantra: to live your life as reasonably as possible without exploiting animals.

Where to place the exact line of reasonable/unreasonable is a personal choice. For me it falls somewhere between "doing the right thing" and "not having fun any more."

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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