Basically, you want to look for the same kinds of things on the nutrition label of vegetarian foods that you’d look for on non-vegetarian foods. Look at how much protein it has, how many calories, how much sugar, how many grams of fat and carbs if you keep track of those things. There are a few things to keep in mind when reading labels, though.
Don’t assume “vegetarian” or “vegan” mean healthy. There is lots of vegan junk food out there and vegan or not, it’s still junk food. Vegetarian food products can be high in sugar, high in fat and full of all kinds of chemicals you wouldn’t want to put in your body.
Don’t assume the word “vegetable” means vegetarian. For instance, canned vegetable soup often contains beef or chicken stock. Once I bought some frozen vegetable fried rice only to find out it actually contained chicken fat!
Don’t assume prepackaged foods are vegetarian just because you would not put meat in them if you made them yourself. A friend of mine once found a packaged cake mix that contained beef fat! I’ve never seen a cake recipe that calls for beef fat, but they put all kinds of wacky stuff in packaged foods.
Don’t assume fake meat products, like veggie burgers, have as much protein as real meat. Some brands will have more protein than others. Read the label.
Animal Ingredients to Watch Out For
It would be easier to avoid animal products if companies always labeled things clearly, but they don’t. For instance, the label on a package of cheese will not list “calf stomach” as an ingredient but it might list rennet, which just happens to be another word for part of the stomach of a calf. Here are some ingredients to watch out for if you want to avoid animal products:
Albumen – usually comes from egg whites.
Carmine, carminic acid, cochineal – red dye made from crushed beetles.
Casein, caseinate, sodium caseinate – milk protein. Often found in soy cheese (which means they aren’t vegan).
Gelatin – yes, like in Jello. Made from boiling the skin and hooves of horses, cows and pigs.
Glycerides, monoglycerides – animal fat.
Lactic acid – found in blood and muscle tissue. Use in fermented foods like beer and sauerkraut.
Lard – fat from pigs or cows.
Natural coloring – can mean anything, including animal ingredients.
Natural flavor – can mean anything, including animal ingredients.
Pepsin -from the stomach of pigs, used in some cheeses.
Rennet, rennin – from the stomach of calves, used in some cheeses.
Stearic acid – animal fat, sometimes used in chewing gum.
Vitamin D – when foods are fortified with vitamin D, the way milk often is, the vitamin D usually comes from animals, often from fish liver oil.
Whey – a milk product.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. http://www.peta.org/living/vegetarian-living/animal-ingredient-guide.aspx. Animal Ingredients List.