15 Surprising Foods That Aren’t Vegetarian

From fast-food bagels to your favorite breakfast cereal, these non-vegetarian eats might sneak up on you.

Chunk of cheese on a wooden cutting board beside a pile of shreds with a grater behind them
Shutterstock / Olexiy Bayev

If you’ve ever started an animal-free diet or tried your hand at serving vegetarian relatives you know that it can be difficult to tell if a product is truly vegetarian or not. Fresh produce and homemade meatless recipes are usually a safe bet, but sometimes animal products can sneak their way into a few unexpected items. Whether you’re serving a vegetarian guest or going vegetarian yourself, here are a few surprising foods you should avoid.

1. Vegetable Soups

Though you’d think most veggie soups are vegetarian, many canned varieties and cafe recipes include beef or chicken stock. Even French onion or split pea soup is prone to this treatment. Be sure to check the label before you serve. Still trying to get your soup fix? Make a batch of easy homemade vegetable broth for one of our vegetarian soup recipes.

2. Frosted Mini-Wheats and Lucky Charms

A lot of cereals are safe for vegetarians to eat, but two of Kellogg’s most popular brands contain gelatin: Frosted Mini-Wheats and Lucky Charms. Yes, those delicious little charms and frosty-sweet toppings feature the ingredient. What’s so wrong with gelatin? Well, it’s typically made from the skin, hooves and bones of animals–definitely not vegetarian! For a homemade substitute, learn how to make granola with this easy guide.

3. Altoids

Surprisingly, Altoids also contain gelatin. I guess they aren’t mint for vegetarians!

4. Candy Corn

With the Halloween season coming up, vegetarians should stay clear of this tricolor candy snack because it is another culprit of that sneaky gelatin. My suggestion? Try a recipe with actual corn. We have 75 delicious recipes here.

5. Tortillas

Next time you go out for Mexican, ask your server if the tortillas contain lard–most varieties do. (Hint: lard isn’t vegetarian, but we’ll spare you the details.) The most tasty pre-made pie crusts also are guilty of this ingredient. Luckily, we have some substitutions. Check out our recipe for vegetarian-friendly homemade tortillas. And our Super-Easy Graham Pie Crust is a veggie-friendly winner!

6. Certain Vitamins

Most “gel cap” vitamins get their telltale squish from–you guessed it–gelatin. In addition, many vitamins proclaiming “heart health” or “omega 3s” get the claim from fish oils. To make sure your vitamins are vegetarian, avoid anything with gelatin, omega 3 or hydrolyzed collagen protein. Instead, look for options listing carrageenan or agar, two vegetarian-friendly options.

7. Processed Sugar

It doesn’t matter if it’s white, brown or powdered. Most types of processed sugar are refined with a product known as bone char. That’s exactly what it sounds like: the burnt remains of cow bones. This ingredient is used to remove impurities from raw sugar. The bone char won’t show up in the final product of your sugar; it’s just used in the refining process. But if you’re a strict vegetarian, stick to some safer options: organic sugar, beet sugar or raw cane sugar.

Also, note that C&H Sugar Co. and Imperial Sugar have vowed not to use animal products in their processes, so they are also safe bets for loading into any one of our vegetarian desserts. Did somebody say strawberry-rhubarb coffee cake?

8. Red Candies

If you’ve ever eaten hard, red candies or vibrantly colored red foods or drinks, you’ve probably had natural red #4, a dye made from crushed beetle shells. To avoid, check your food ingredient lists for carmine, crimson lake, cochineal or natural red #4. Instead, opt for plant-based dyes like lycopene and anthocyanin.

9. Certain Beers and Wines

Most beers and wines don’t use isinglass, a product derived from fish bladders, to filter out yeast. But Guinness and many British beers (like Samuel Smith Stout, Fuller’s London brew and Black Sheep beer) do. Seek out American or German beers or do research to find vegetarian spirits.

10. Parmesan Cheese

The process converting liquid milk into solid cheese isn’t easy, and that’s why some cheese makers use rennet to streamline the process. Rennet is made from lamb and calf stomachs, and it’s another sneaky ingredient that vegetarians should avoid. While not all cheeses contain rennet, the popular Parmigiano-Reggiano brand does. To be safe, look for specially labeled “vegetarian” cheese. Kraft Parmesan is one of them.

11. Pesto Sauce

Parmesan cheese is a common ingredient in pesto sauce. Unless you know specifically that your pesto doesn’t contain rennet, swap out pesto for a different sauce or learn how to make your own pesto at home.

12. Bagels

Frequent Einstein Bros. or Dunkin Donuts? Both of these companies have admitted to using l. cysteine in their bagels. This scientific-sounding ingredient is a conditioning agent made from chicken and duck feathers or human hair. Yuck! My tip? Bypass the fast food and make your own bagels from scratch. (Other products with this ingredient include Pizza Hut’s garlic bread and McDonalds’ cinnamon rolls and apple pies.)

13. Natural Vanilla Ice Cream

Even ice cream isn’t safe for vegetarians. Castoreum, a musky brown liquid that beavers use to mark their territory, has a rich vanilla-like scent that some companies use to flavor vanilla ice cream without using artificial flavoring. It’s safe to eat, so the FDA ruled that manufacturers don’t have to list it on the packaging. This makes it difficult to identify. Our answer: Stick to vegetarian and vegan-approved ice cream brands. You can usually find that label on the lid.

Of course, there are other ways to satisfy your sweet tooth: Try our vegan chocolate-chip cookies!

14. Cake Mix

There are a lot of boxed cake mixes out there with lard in them, so check the ingredient list before you bake.

15. Hard Candies

If you’ve ever had your nails done, you’ve probably heard of shellac, a shiny glaze produced by lac bugs that makes your nails look polished. The same thing is used to coat hard candies like jelly beans, Whoppers, Milk Duds and some sprinkles. To be safe, stick to M&M’s–they’re one notable exception.

Did you know that all 15 of these foods contain animal products? With so many strange ingredients in the fine print, it can be difficult to tell. Keep it safe with our five-ingredient vegetarian recipes. They’re all surefire ways to impress your guests!

Easy Vegetarian Recipes
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