Find out which everyday foods are accidentally vegan – and how to include more in your diet
When you first give a vegan diet a go, every supermarket shop can feel like a bit of a minefield! You’ll find milk powder here…egg glaze over there… and spend a lot of time (at first!) reading labels.
It’s useful to do your research into which foods are naturally vegan or ‘accidently’ vegan, so you always have some go-to’s to throw in your trolley.
We want to help! That’s why we have written this guide to help you have a better understanding of which foods are naturally vegan, accidently vegan, as well as big no-no’s in the vegan food world.
What does being vegan mean?
Here is The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism:1
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Are all fruit and vegetables vegan?
This may seem like a silly question, of course fruits and veggies are safe for vegans to eat, right? Well, for the most part: yes, the vast majority of fruits and vegetables are vegan-friendly, but there are (sadly) some exceptions, like preservatives, that make them questionable.
The following fruits and veggies are not ‘technically’ vegan – but most people do still consider them vegan. It depends how ‘strict’ you are adhering to your vegan diet if you choose to eat them or not – the jury is out (!):
Bananas: may contain crab sell and shrimp
It’s far too cold to grow bananas here in the UK, so our fave yellow fruit has to travel a fair distance to get to us. And what is keeping a lot of them fresh in transit and on shop shelves? A preservative called chitosan, which is unfortunately extracted from crustacean shells, e.g. crabs and prawns.
What can you do? Bananas are vegan. But if the thought of crustacean shell preservatives are putting you off then opt for organic fruit that doesn’t get exposed to preservatives or contact the supplier to see if they can help you.
Fruit juice: may contain animal-derived nutrients
Yep, that’s right, your favourite juice may not be (vegan) safe!
Some fruit juice manufacturers like to enrich their drinks with extra vitamins and other nutrients – which sounds good, until you realise that some of these are animal-derived.
Common examples of this include vitamin D, which is sometimes extracted from sheep’s wool and omega-3 oils which can come from fish.
What can you do? Don’t worry, you’ve got lots of options to avoid weird animal-product laden fruit juice, like:
- Check labels and go for 100% fruit juices
- Shop from vegan-certified companies
- Get yourself a juicer and make your own
Roast and mashed vegetables: may contain dairy or animal fat
Sometimes it’s nice and convenient to buy frozen roast potatoes, ready-made mashed potatoes, frozen roasted carrots and parsnips, etc.
However, these tasty treats often have added animal products, like cream in mash or goose-fat-glazed roasties.
What can you do?
- Check labels for non-vegan ingredients
- Ask restaurant staff when eating out if its not clear on the menu
- Make your own
Figs: contains dead wasps
Are figs vegan? Yes, but it’s a weird – and pretty gross – one!
Some figs require a female wasp to die inside of them to be pollinated. She enters the fig to lay her eggs, but then cannot escape, dies, and gets broken down in the fig by enzymes.
However, figs wouldn’t be able to pollinate without killing the female wasps, but the female wasp needs this fateful end just as much as the fig: to lay her precious eggs. This dependence the two organisms have on each other is known as a symbiotic relationship – so this completely natural process is more than often considered vegan.
Is pasta vegan?
It totally depends. Some traditional pasta recipes contain eggs, some don’t.
If you’re standing in front of the pasta shelf in the supermarket, chances are that you will find a vegan-friendly dried pasta – it may not necessarily be labelled so (perhaps just vegetarian), just make sure you check the label for eggs, dairy and meat.
The fridge section may tell a different story, however. A lot of fresh pasta in the UK tends to be made with egg or filled with cheese and meat, so feel free to check, but not many brands will be vegan.
Restaurants should specify on the menu if their pasta dishes are vegan-friendly, but if it doesn’t say, it doesn’t hurt to ask if the pasta contains dairy, egg, meat, etc. Pasta with tomato sauce was a long-standing ‘emergency vegan meal’ in pubs and restaurants when we didn’t have the impressive amount of options we have today.
If you’ve got the time, and the patience (!), there are lots of fresh vegan pasta recipes online you could give a go if you’re craving fresh pasta.
Is bread vegan?
Generally, yes; we can hear your sighs of relief from here!
Traditionally, bread is made with flour, water, salt and yeast, all of which are vegan. Yeast can be a bit of a confusing one because technically it is alive, but only in the same way as other fungi. So, as a vegan, if you’re ok with eating mushrooms, you should be ok with eating yeast.
However, some bread may also contain the addition of animal products, like:
- Butter: some garlic breads, flat breads, sweet bread products, etc.
- Eggs some Jewish breads like Challah and the French brioche, or commercial loaves of bread as stabilisers and fillers
- Lecithin: can be made from soybeans, plants, or egg, so make sure you check your load
- Casein or whey (milk proteins): sometimes added to bread to give it more protein and shelf life
- Honey: added as a flavouring to some sweet breads
- Sugar: some refined sugar is made with bone char – although this is a very American thing and not prevalent in the UK so you should be ok
- Milk & cream: check for dairy products in your bread
- Buttermilk: found in some Irish soda breads and other specialty breads
- L-Cysteine: this once common bread addition is now very rare in the UK, but keep your eye out for it as its made from animal products like pig hair, duck feathers, or even human skin (eek!
You might like: Vegan bread: Can I eat bread on a vegan diet?
Is cereal vegan?
Again, as with most processed products, it totally depends on the recipe, but a lot of classic cereal brands are accidently vegan.
Just like fruit juice, cereals are often fortified with vitamin D and other nutrients that may be derived from animals, so you must check the labels for those, as well as milk powder, etc.
Foods that you thought are vegan but aren’t
Just before we get onto the foods that are naturally vegan, here’s some foods you may have been lead to believe are vegan, but are actually not vegan at all:
- Honey: honey isn’t vegan because bees make it (it’s essentially bee spit!) and it is meant to provide food to them and their hive. Taking it from these hardworking little creatures and eating it is not classed as vegan.
- Gluten-free food: sometimes new vegans can get handed a ‘gluten free’ menu when they state they are vegan in a restaurant because for some reason, some people think it’s the same thing. Similarly, it’s easy to get caught out in the ‘free from’ isle by choosing a product that is gluten free, for example, but not dairy, egg or even meat free.
- Fish: we’re sure we don’t have to tell you this, but fish is not vegan, however many times you may get asked ‘do you eat fish’? when telling someone you are vegan or vegetarian.
- Gummy sweets: a lot of gummy sweets contain gelatine – a substance made from animal cartilage – mmm! You can find vegan gummy sweets though, so keep your eye out!
- Crisps: milk powder can sneak its way into a lot of unlikely foods, like some salt and vinegar crisps and other flavours, so always check the label
- Pesto: although it may look very green and vegan-friendly, pesto often contains parmesan, which is not only a big vegan no-no, but is not even suitable for vegetarians due to it containing rennet. You can find vegan pesto, though.
- Sauces and condiments: some innocent-looking sauces and condiments may contain animal products. For example, some soy sauces contain fish sauce and some BBQ sauces contain honey.
10 Foods that are naturally vegan
Now, lets get on to some naturally vegan foods you can get your teeth stuck into!
Even the most stubborn of meat eaters and veg haters will likely eat some naturally and accidently everyday vegan foods without noticing; hello beans on toast…
Here’s our round-up of some of the best – and they might actually surprise you:
1. Dark chocolate
Love chocolate? No need to give it up to go vegan – just choose dark chocolate or other vegan-chocolate instead.
Whether you want some chocolatey goodness for baking or a treat to nibble on, dark chocolate could be a better choice all round. In fact, a lot of baking chocolate is accidentally vegan as a higher cocoa content is better for brownies, cookies and other chocolate bakes.
Unlike milk chocolate, dark chocolate is more likely to be dairy-free, made using cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Read the label before you buy – whey, a dairy ingredient, may be included in the list of some bars.
Dark chocolate is good for you too! Here are some benefits:2
- Contains antioxidants
- Chocolate contains the same chemical we produce when we fall in love – aww!
- Contains iron, magnesium, copper and lots of manganese
What to try: NOMO Dark Chocolate
These savoury biscuits are almost always naturally vegan, containing no dairy, honey or other animal products. They’re also low in sugar, a great source of soluble fibre and low on the glycaemic index, which means they can keep you fuller for longer.3
Spread your no-dairy cheese, chocolate spread or nut butters on them guilt-free.
What to try: Nairn’s Organic Oatcakes
3. Quinoa crisps
Some brands of crisps are completely vegan, but not all, so it might help to know that quinoa crisps tick both vegetarian and vegan boxes. Grab a bag for a lunchbox or party snack, and don’t be turned off by a ‘dairy’ flavour: sour cream flavouring is often made using vegan ingredients, like rice flour and yeast extract powder.
What to try: Eat Real Sour Cream & Chives Quinoa Crisps
4. Sea vegetables
You might already know that seaweed is high in fibre and protein, low in fat and an excellent source of essential fatty acids, plus minerals like calcium – but of course because it’s a vegetable, it’s a completely vegan food, too.4
If you’re looking to add more high protein vegan foods to your diet. then sprinkle sea vegetables into salads or stir into soups for a rich umami flavour.
What to try: Seaweed Sheets
5. Nut butters
Don’t get put off by the word butter! Nut butters are a very tasty and often very vegan exception to the butter rule.
Salt and oil are the only ingredients that might be added to turn nuts into high-quality nut butter – which means that your favourite peanut butter or almond butter is more than likely also vegan.
Some cheaper brands of nut butter add sugar, sweeteners and sometimes even milk powder, so always check the label and make sure you’re buying the high-quality stuff!
Here are some general nut butter benefits (it obviously differs slightly for each nut):
- Rich in healthy unsaturated fats, especially monounsaturated fats that can help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels
- A good source of fibre and protein
- Contain their own unique vitamins and minerals
Nut butters, especially peanut butter, can be seen in lots of vegan cooking and baking, here’s some inspo:
- Vegan peanut tofu poke bowl
- Pumpkin spiced almond butter cups
- Vegan peanut butter & banana oat muffins
- Vegan coconut & almond butter slices
- Cacao, oats & peanut butter bites
Or just simply serve on wholemeal toast or bagels for a high-protein snack that’s rich in unsaturated fat.5
What to try: Meridian Natural Crunchy Peanut Butter
Looking for a healthy, vegan breakfast? You could already be eating it! Most muesli is accidentally vegan, containing just grains – like oats, malted barley and wheat flakes – plus dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
Make sure you read the label – skimmed milk powder is included in some Swiss-style mueslis, while honey is found in others.
Serve with your favourite plant milk for a nourishing, yet satisfying, breakfast.
What to try: Deliciously Ella Bircher Muesli
7. Nutritional yeast
This yeast is a vegan store cupboard staple, giving a cheesy, nutty flavour to bakes, and a depth to soups, stews and casseroles.
It’s good for you too – a source of protein, fibre and some B-vitamins, like thiamine, essential for the nervous system. Choose one fortified with vitamin B12 as vegans can fall short of this nutrient.6
What to try: Engevita Yeast Flakes B12
8. Tomato-based pasta sauce
No meat, fish or dairy in your bolognese sauce? That makes it vegan! Tomato-based pasta sauces are rich in vitamin C and also vitamin K.7
Layer into a batch-cook bake, or simply stir into pasta. No time to make it? Grab a store-bought jar instead.
What to try: Zest Tomato & Fiery Chilli Pasta Sauce
9. Wheat and rice noodles
Want to enjoy some tasty Chinese, Japanese, Thai or other Asian-inspired noodle dishes but used to using traditional egg noodles? Try using equally traditional rice noodles or yummy wheat noodles in your wok instead!
Rice noodles are incredibly light and make a mean vermicelli chow mein, stir fry, noodle salad and more. As they’re so skinny and not as carb or calorie dense as traditional egg noodles, they’re perfect for when you want a filling meal – and a lot of it!
Other rice noodle benefits include:
- Naturally gluten free
- Easy to prepare
- Taste good hot and cold
There are lots of other vegan noodles too you can give a go, read about them here and how you can make your own.
10. Ciabatta bread
Lots of bread is naturally vegan, but if you ever don’t have access to product information, you should always be able to rely on a ciabatta!
This light, fluffy and delightfully crispy Italian bread is traditionally made with just flour, yeast and salt, so it really has no excuse to not be vegan – unless someone has made it wrong. The only exception should be ciabatta al latte – which does contain milk.
Use this delish Italian favourite to make tomato and herb bruschetta, avocado on toast, homemade garlic bread, and more.
We hope this helps you understand which:
- Foods that are vegan naturally
- Foods you may think are vegan, but are not
- Foods are ‘accidently’ vegan
Remember, transitioning from a vegan diet is always going to be a little (or a lot) confusing at first. However, once you learn what you can and can’t eat and veganism becomes a habit for you, you will quickly reap the benefits of this varied diet.
Last updated: 20 January 2021
Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Regulatory Affairs
Bhupesh started his career as a clinical toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products. After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
In his spare time, Bhupesh likes to cycle and has been learning to speak Korean for several years.