Ignorance is Bliss!

Ignorance is bliss!

A question to all vegetarians. What will be your reaction when you find out that some of the common stuff you have been eating all along have unfamiliar animal (derived) ingredients? I was shocked to the core. That's the least I can explain how I felt.

I won't call myself (our family too) a staunch vegetarian because we have eaten eggs in one form or the other. We don't bring it home, but enjoy store bought baked goods (some of which may contain lard also, who knows?), ice cream etc. But that too has reduced a lot since I started baking. I really can't remember the last time I bought a cake or a muffin. Sometimes I get cookies/bars for my son, but keep checking the ingredients list for eggs and/or any other animal fat like lard, tallow or gelatin. I also check the nutrition table for the fat content, sugar, fiber, protein etc for cereals and other processed goods.

I'm sure many of us do all these things. But how many of you have seen the ingredients list in yogurt, cheese, chips? At least I have not even thought about it until Monday (day before yesterday) night. How in God's name do I know that they are adding animal derived ingredients in yogurt and cheese? May be some of you might already know it but I have been ignorant about it until recently. So those of you who don't know it already, here's the bitter truth; some of the brands of yogurt (especially low fat) contain gelatin and cheese contain rennet/rennin. I found it in the Veggie Boards forum.

I know that gelatin is derived from animal bones and it's an ingredient in marshmallows, Jello, so I don't buy those stuff. I also check for it in other processed goods. I also know that agar is the vegetarian substitute for gelatin. But not in my wildest dreams I would have guessed that gelatin was included in low fat yogurt as well. We regularly buy non fat/low fat yogurt and I don't know what I have been eating all these years. It doesn't stop with yogurt. Pork derived gelatin is added in some brands of BBQ flavored potato chips, in Altoids, Tic Tac and other mints too. Didn't I tell you that ignorance is bliss?

Another innocent product masquerading as vegetarian is cheese. We are not big cheese lovers. Actually I try to make pizzas and pastas without cheese. But we do enjoy a slice of cheese pizza occasionally and I have been getting cheese sticks and slices for my son for his snack. It has never occurred to me to check the ingredients list. Why would I, because I know that it's made with cow's milk and all vegetarian cookbooks mention the use of cheese. Guess what? some of the brands have rennet (it's an enzyme). To make it simple, rennet is derived from the stomach of dead calves. The actual process is really gross. If you have the guts to read it check it out here. If reading about rennet freaked you out, don't even think about finding out what carmine is.

I immediately ran to the kitchen to raid my fridge. Luckily, the yogurt I bought had agar and it was clearly mentioned in bold letters under the name of the yogurt "No Gelatin". It's been a month since we moved to Canada and I have been buying this brand of yogurt since then, but never once I have noticed the brightly colored bold letters. For those living in Canada, it's the Astro brand. I have to check the other brands the next time I go grocery shopping. I also checked the flavored yogurt (Irresistables) I had bought and was relieved to see it had locust bean gum. It's a vegetable gum extracted from the seeds of carob tree. I read in the same forum that Activia brand yogurt has gelatin but have to check it out for myself. I had also bought shredded part skim 3 cheese (for pizza) after a very long time, so that was the next thing I checked. I guess I was lucky this time because this brand had used microbial enzymes (which is neither animal derived nor vegetable derived but from microbes, which is considered vegetarian though). I also read in the same forum that (Update: some of) the cheese available in Trader's Joe and Whole Foods is vegetarian.

Apparently there is vegetable derived rennet as well which small producers use to make their specialty cheese. But I'm sure that if a company uses vegetable derived rennet they will be using it as a good marketing strategy to promote their product. So unless and otherwise it is specified clearly we wouldn't know the origin of the enzyme if simply rennet is printed in the ingredients list. For example the brand of cheese I bought this time was Kraft (3 cheese Pizza). They have microbial enzymes listed and I checked with other ingredients too and don't find anything animal derived, so I'm assuming it's vegetarian. (Update: The Kraft brand cheese I have mentioned also lists lipase in the ingredients. When searching for information about it I see that, like rennet, lipase can also be derived from animals or microbes. So unless we hear from Kraft about the origin of the lipase we cannot assume that it's vegetarian). Or the best bet is to contact Kraft/or any other company before using their products.

I went through Kraft Canada's website and found that the cheese powder they use in their Mac and Cheese dinner uses animal derived rennet. The source of rennet in the regular cheese was not mentioned clearly, so I have sent them an email. It's mentioned that they use pure Rennet, a natural substance for turning milk to curds and whey. Is pure vegetarian? we don't know that yet. The pack also mentions shredded natural cheese. Does natural mean vegetarian? We don't know that too. Wish these companies can have some symbol to denote their products are vegetarian, like they have a green circle in India.

In this day and age of processed foods which has a long list of unfamiliar chemical names it's very difficult (but possible) to identify if a particular ingredient is animal derived or not. Also we cannot go animal-free totally because some of the medication we take contains animal derived ingredients as well. For example, capsules are made with the very same animal derived gelatin. There are some vegetarian gelatin based capsules which clearly mention VegCaps in their pack. The multivitamins/vaccinations we take contains all type of animal/fish products.

So what's the purpose of this post then? To create little awareness so that some of us (vegetarians) who already don't check the ingredients while buying processed food will check it out hereafter!

Some links which might be helpful (I have not checked any of the products, so be sure to check it for yourself before buying)

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  1. RedChillies

    We are pretty much like you, we do not eat eggs at home but we do eat bakery products from the outside. Glad that I learnt about carmine and rennet. I will keep an eye on them.

    I think avoiding carmine is difficult than avoiding rennet.

  2. Manvantara

    Madhuram, what is your email address? I have some more to write to you but there is a 100 character limit (maybe there is a reason for that! 😀 ). Mine is anuchellappa at yahoo dot com.

    I will send an email or you can use the contact form to send me an email. I will also increase the character limit here. I would appreciate if you would record your comments here because others too can benefit from it.

  3. Sweatha

    I agree with Aparna as well.I got lucky in that case.the green vegetarian label is a good indicator

  4. Sweatha

    I agree with DK.Better go for whole fat ygrt/milk.
    I used to go for whole fat(no gelatin added) normally thgh I tried the low fat versions as well.The RENNET thing is shocking.I have heard abt rennet but never ever tried to find out what it was
    Lesson Learnt: Check for ingredients and make sure there are no animal content.
    Actually I was as shocked when I came to know about marshmallow.
    Never knew about it.Thanks for the info on rennet and generally cheese.
    I dare not check carmine.

    Thanks Sweatha. I think we (at least in US) are exposed to carmine more than rennet. I may be wrong, I’m not sure.

  5. Manvantara

    Hi Madhu,
    Glad you stumbled across this – that packaged yogurt sometimes has gelatin and that cheese usually has gelatin. Not all the cheese available at Trader Joe’s is rennet free, btw. I have found some cheese at Costco that does not have rennet.

    A lot of pasta usually has eggs and there are some times of buns/breads that have eggs (when I looked for “hotdog buns” to go with pau bhaji that is what I discovered, those have egg yolks.

    The good thing about the US or Canada is that food items are labeled (hopefully truthfully!).So we have a good idea about what we are eating.

    Somewhere I read that Horlicks used to have fish scales! And that Ovaltine has egg whites. I have not bothered to check the labels, though.

    And what about white sugar? It is processed with bone char….

    So where does it stop??

    What I have learnt is that the minute a food is “processed” or “refined” or cooked, there are ingredients that are either not vegetarian or not healthy for us.

    You might be interested in a book called “Twinkie, deconstructed”, which gives a fairly good idea about the ingredients that food manufacturers add to their products to increase shelf life, to make it more palatable” (who cares about health?!), etc.

    I have been following your blog for some months now, ever since my mom stumbled on it. I have a recipe in mind for your baking event which I am sure will win it, so your giveaway better be good, ha! 😆

    Welcome to my blog Manvantara. I ran to check the Ovaltine and did see that the chocolate flavor has dried egg yolks, but the malt flavor doesn’t have anything, at least apparently. I buy it for my son. Actually the brand I used in US did not have any egg yolks, I’m sure I checked it, so I did not care to look it here as well. I came to know about the refining process of sugar after reading some book. But am I ready to give up sugar? Not yet! Sounds like hypocrisy! I’ll check out the book you have mentioned.

    Please do send your entry for the event. At this moment I’m thinking using random.org to select the prize winning entry.

  6. Aparna

    I guess we’re really lucky in India, that our cheese and such stuff is safe. My daughter has a thing about looking for that green dot on labels! 🙂

    Yes Aparna, you guys are really very lucky.

  7. Priya

    Such a useful post Madhu…Really very informative, i never ever thought gelatins in low fat yogurt…thanks for this info.

  8. Soma

    That is some shocking info.. we are not vegetarians.. but stomachs of dead calves make my stomach churn:-(

  9. shoba

    A very useful post , Madhuram. I will forward this to my friends who are particular about Veg food. I am a vegetarian too, but don’t mind eggs. I buy Organic all the time from WF and they don’t usually use animal products.I was under the impression that the low fat yogurt uses corn starch to thicken it. Btw, first time commenting here.

    Thanks Shoba.

  10. dk

    Ok i am back again – I think most of the low fat varieties have this issue – I am a label freak hence was surprised that I never even knew of this, but I guess the whole fat yogurt which is what I generally buy to avoid additives in low fat ones does not have a large case of gelatin addition – at least I dint happen to see any and mine doesnt have! I also chked my sour cream – Nada there too but then again its full fat!

    I have buying full fat stuff ever since I read in a magazine that for those who are trying to get pregnant, go for full fat since low fat has certain additives/preservatives which could affect ppl who are trying to get pregnant! I mean WTH? what about the rest then? Anything which has some effects in some form or the other is v scary to both me and K, so we decided why take risk!

    Yes I too read that the whole milk dairy products (yogurt) don’t have gelatin. That’s what I was about to answer your previous comment. Have you tasted Stoneyfield’s whole milk yogurt? It’s so good. I have to hunt for vegetarian cheese here. We don’t have TJ and WF here

  11. Sadhana

    Madhu yes i agree with you totally, that ignorance is bliss. Right from the time i came to this country i always check for the labels and yes it was a learning process. The flavored yogurt if it is not an organic brand do definetly contain gelatin. I never buy kraft cheese or their mac and cheese, go for Organic brand cheese, in all the Organic cheese brand it will be specifically mentioned as non animal renett. The animal by products don’t stop with the food line, most of the our cosmetics body wash, soap, lotion all of them contain glycerin which is an animal derivative. Better to stick on to Hamam or Mysore sandal.

    Sadhana, it’s good to know that some of you have been aware of all these things long time back. I’m realizing it only now!

  12. dk

    Oh yes! I get cheese without rennet in my local WF! So I am careful about that. I make my own Yogurt but we do buy some occasionally – I do check the label and never saw any mention of Gelatin or lack of it either! I have checked quite a bunch of yogurt varieties – never saw anything which said “No Gelatin!”

    Now how in God’s name can I find out if the yogurt I am buying which claims “It has no artificial anything” but is only made of “Live” cultures is supposed to hiding something like Gelatin in the midst?

  13. Uma

    A great informative post Madhu!! After you alerted (long back) me about gelatin, I have been very careful about choosing food items. But I didn’t know yogurt has gelatin in it. I usually make my own yogurt at home, but sometimes I buy Dannon plain yogurt in emergencies!! So I think I need to double check everything. And my lil one loves Mac n Cheese, but I am scared to buy it now!! What you said is true, IGNORANCE IS BLISS. 🙂

  14. Champa

    Just so everyone knows (those who care) that anything you eat in chinese restaurant is not vegetarian. They use oyster sauce in almost everything even when you say no meat, it is still made with oyster sauce. (I could be wrong, but I was told that they cannot offer me anything without that) Another catch lot of people might not know is some places offer plain rice which is cooked in chicken broth. They don’t tell you unless you specifically ask about that. I was offered plain rice with steamed veggies in the hospital which smelled so bad that I didn’t eat and that was cooked in chicken broth. Go figure.

    Yes, Champa I too guessed that about the oyster sauce and chicken broth.

  15. Lata Raja

    I had seen microbial rennet used in a particular brand of cottage cheese.But there again, no mention of any other animal derivative.Someone told me that PUCK brands (available throughout Gulf countries) is suitable for vegetarians.I am not sure though.We can try not to buy such products. That is all we can do.I’ve heard even the puff pastry used in bakeries in India have animal derivatives.I agree IGNORANCE IS BLISS!!!

  16. Zankhna

    Oh and I forgot to mention that Caesar salad has anchovies in it. A friend informed me that the Caesar salad even without the Chicken isn’t vegetarian as anchovies are almost always an important ingredient.

  17. pavithra kodical

    I agree with you madhuram..I was shocked when i was new to US..
    Now i do not buy yogurt from any stores here and one of my friend
    had given me the culture to make yogurt from India..I use it and make
    at home. You can buy veggie slice or shredded cheese from Meijer
    (In US) i am not sure in Canada..

  18. Zankhna

    I wanted to add that a lot of sour creams also contain Gelatin. I didn’t know this for a while until I read the ingredients list on the Trader joe’s sour cream. Since then, I have been scanning ding the ingredients very carefully. I also learnt from the Jain temple here that Trader Joes cheeses are vegetarian. A lot of flavored yogurts at TJs are gelatin free as well.

  19. Lata Raja

    I check out too.Some time ago,a friend forwarded a news item about a particularly favourite brand of chocolates start using animal derivatives and hence not suitable for vegetarians.I agree with you IGNORANCE IS BLISS

  20. Pracheta Sharma

    Madhu, kraft cheese has Lipase(just google it out) which is exactly the same as Rennet…I wrote a letter asking bout source of ingredients & they replied that lipase is derived from animal source. Infact everywhere parmesan, feta, romano has lipase in it.

    I did see lipase in the list and googled it and saw that lipase can be from animals or microbes. Since they had also listed microbial enzyme I was assuming (leaning towards) that the lipase would also be microbial. I have also sent a mail to be sure. But you say that you have already got a reply from them telling that it’s derived from animal source, so I guess I have to return the cheese.

  21. Vani

    Very informative post, Madhu! WHo’d think cheese could contain animal extracts?! A friend of mine used to have fries at McD’s on her vrat days and the outrage she felt when the truth about them was released!

    Thanks Vani. More compelling reasons to stick to homemade food.

  22. Mala

    Hey Madhuram,

    Thanks for such a informative post !! I am person who lives in details and so when I first came to US I had started to look into all these little things, but only after I had made mistakes.

    We went to a mexican restaurant once, and they served their refried beans laced with lard. I had no idea at first but a friend of mine alerted me to it and since then I have been really (some people say freakishly) meticulous as to what I eat !! I have a toddler daughter and I am very picky as to what we buy for her too!

    I am a Lacto-vegetarian and having avoided eggs all my life (even in cakes and stuff, when I was in India) it was sad when it happened, but I have learnt to be careful.

    Thanks again for a nice article. I fwd it to my husband and he is going 😯

    Have a good day ahead !


    You’re welcome Mala. I too am going to be more careful when checking the ingredients list. I knew about lard in refried beans. Once Rachel Ray mentioned in her 30 Minutes show.

  23. Vaishali

    Madhuram, that was very informative– and you’re right, lots of products believed to be vegetarian often contain animal derivative products. It helps a lot to read labels, and to understand terms that don’t sound familiar. As a vegan, I’ve learned to be very careful. Of course, cooking from scratch, as you do, is always a great idea.

    Thanks Vaishali. Sometimes we assume that certain products are vegetarian but I will be careful hereafter. Yes vegans are very good at reading labels.

  24. Happy Cook

    I have to agree ignorance is really a bliss. Here in Belgium french fries are a national dish you will see a shop in every corner called fries But what lot of people don’t know ( especially the vegetarians coming from India) is that these potatoes are fried in animal fat. I have seen here in shops too that some bran yogurt have gelatin and don’t forget all those sweets.

    I too have heard about the french fries issue. Yes it’s very difficult to identify HC.

  25. Champa

    I have been a vegetarian all my life. Never ate egg as in egg. Even when I bake with eggs, I do not eat them. But, in India I have eaten bakery cakes which obviously had eggs (I didn’t know at that time). But I do know about gelatin and they put it in yogurt (that’s why I never use store bought yogurt and buttermilk) and vitamins. When I was pregnant, I could not find any prenatal vitamin without gelatin, so had no other option but to take it. Cheese, I did know about Rennet and we hardly made anything with cheese. But, if you think from a practical viewpoint, we have so limited choice when we go out being vegetarians. If you dig deep into it, it practically becomes impossible to survive. What would you do when you go to someone’s house and they offer you thair sadam which they made using store bought yogurt? You obviously can’t offend them. They might have made some mousse or some pie with gelatin in it. One other example is when I was pregnant, I had some problems and was on bed rest for 2 1/2 months (you read it right) in the hospital. I had to survive on muffins, pancakes, yogurt that the hospital people would give till my husband would bring me dinner every evening. I started eating what they gave me (no meat obviously) because I had to do it to keep myself and my baby healthy. Do I repent it, not even for a minute. WOuld I eat pancakes now, never. So, it is a judgmental call. Man I am a lengthy writer. Sorry about that. If you chose not to publish this, I understand. Be happy, you are not hurting anyone by accidentally having eaten it.

    Don’t worry about the length of the comment Champa. Then what’s the purpose of this section? I too agree that it’s difficult to eliminate animal products completely. I just wanted to create some awareness among strict vegetarians who think they are not eating any animal derived stuff even indirectly. As you have said we cannot control what others are serving us, but at least we can be careful enough not to buy these products voluntarily. Thank you for your valuable comment.