Nov 15, 2010

Common Mistakes of a New Vegetarian

I was 16 when I decided to become a vegetarian. With 2010 being my twentieth meat free year, I have mistakenly eaten quite a few meals that contain meat products, especially in the first few years. While most of these mistakes may seem like common sense in hindsight, I was very naive about food production when I started out.

Here is my top 10 list of mistakes in no particular order:

  1. Soup- Just because you order a vegetable soup, does not mean it is vegetarian. Most soup is made with a chicken or beef stock. I was in love with Friday's broccoli-cheddar soup and ordered it every time I went. Then I found out that it was made with chicken stock. I felt kind of dumb at first, but I was just starting out cooking. I don't even think I ever made my own soup or really thought about how it was made. Since then, I find that most restaurants use a meat-based stock by default, which is always so disappointing.
  2. Beef Fat - So Twinkies are my second mistake (for many reasons!). Many snack food items, including most of the Hostess brand from what I can tell, are made with beef fat. Apparently its much cheaper than butter. Always check your labels.
  3. Cheese- Many cheeses contain rennet. What the heck is rennet, you ask? Rennet is a natural enzyme used to coagulate milk, which is ideal for making cheese. The problem is where rennet comes from- the stomach lining of mammals, mainly baby cows. So even though you may think veal is the most evil of all meats, many cheeses that you eat are made using the byproduct of the veal industry. I suspect most vegetarians are probably guilty of this oversight, including me. I'll admit, I'm weak. And maybe I'll lose some credibility saying this, but up until now, I've been reluctant to really look into the ingredients in my cheese. I'm Italian and most of the best cheese in the world is made with rennet. How can I live without the occasional Parmesan and buffalo mozzarella? After researching the details of rennet production just now, I can honestly say that I'm going to make a serious effort to eliminate rennet-based cheese from my diet. Now, there is good news for you fellow cheese lovers. There are several non-calf rennets available: vegetable rennet made from plants, microbial rennet made from molds, and even genetically modified rennet, although some GM rennet may still be derived from animal genes.
  4. Gelatin - Gelatin is made from the collagen inside animals' skin and bones. You can find gelatin in Jello, many gummy candy products, and in marshmallows. Gelatin is a binding ingredient. So that chewy candy you love so much may very well be made with gelatin. Oh, and my friend and I realized the low fat cookies she loved so much contained gelatin. Go figure. By the way, the emulsion on photographic film also contains gelatin.  :(
  5. Lard - Lard is a pig fat used in cooking many foods, such as in tortillas, to fry foods, in traditional refried beans, to make flaky crusts, etc. If you eat out, its hard to tell if the food is cooked with lard. If I eat at a Mexican restaurant I try to ask about the tortillas and beans. McDonalds and other fast food restaurants used to use lard to fry the french fries. Supposedly they don't anymore, but I don't take any chances. In my opinion, nothing good can come from eating fast food, especially places with cheap hamburgers as the primary option.
  6. Rice - A lot of traditional rice is made with some kind of stock, probably meat based. I can't even count how many times I've eaten rice at a Mexican  restaurant that contained some kind of animal stock. Always ask about the rice, even if its in a "vegetarian" burrito. Seriously. 
  7. Fish in Asian food - Traditional miso soup contains fish. The dashi, or soup stock may contain niboshi (dried baby sardines) and katsuobushi (thin shavings of dried and smoked bonito). If you ask if there is fish, the server may say no. I typically ask if the soup contains bonito and they understand. Also, I once purchased a premade seaweed salad at a grocery store and realized it contained fish. So now I ask about seaweed salad. Many sauces used in Thai and other Asian food contain fish. Very often Thai curry has a fish flavor in it. And when ordering vegetable sushi, make sure your selection isn't topped with fish eggs.
  8. Carmine/Cochineal - This is the red color pigment obtained from small insects such as the South American cochineal. Yum! It is also called Crimson Lake, Cochineal, Natural Red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120. If your candy, juice, ice cream, yogurt, etc is red or pink, check the label. Due to concerns over allergic reactions, the FDA has recently passed a regulation requiring carmine and cochineal to be listed by name on the label, effective January 5, 2011.
  9. Isinglass - This is my most recent horrific discovery. Isinglass is a type of collagen used in some wine and beer production. And guess where isinglass is derived from? The swim bladder of fish. Supposedly very little isinglass remains in the beer that you drink, so I guess whether you care or not depends on your level of vegetarianism. Keep in mind this is mostly in cask-conditioned beers, such as Guinness (why!!!). I found this out shortly before my honeymoon to Ireland. I still had to have a few Guinness there, all the while trying pretend I had never heard about isinglass.  But, fear not. There is a fantastic website called They contact every brewery you can imagine and find out if their line is vegan friendly, then post the results. It's a brilliant site.
  10. Look before you eat - OK, you would think after 20 years I wouldn't be mistakenly biting into chicken, beef or fish, but it happens. A lot. Like I order a bean burrito and end up with beef. Most recently I ordered scallion pancakes at a Korean restaurant without realizing the the regular scallion pancakes contained fish. I should have specified the vegetable scallion pancakes. After two bites and wondering why a scallion was extremely chewy, I finally realized it tasted like fish. Yeah, I managed to eat octopus. Yippie. At least now I can say I tried octopus. So, lesson learned is, no matter how hungry you are, always take a moment to look and smell your food before digging in.  And try to be really clear that you are a vegetarian up front before you order.

How do you avoid these mistakes? Always read food labels. Don't just assume that the package of low-fat cookies you want are vegetarian because cookies don't typically contain meat products. And when eating out, ask, ask, ask. Yes, sometimes I feel like the server hates me because I ask so many questions, but it's important to me. My first question is typically "Is this dish vegetarian." Then, I ask about specifics- animal stock, fish flavor, lard, etc if I suspect the dish might contain them.  Even today with so much more vegetarian awareness, there are still people who think just the absence of visible meat makes it vegetarian. And be especially careful in ethnic restaurants, where the cultural and language barriers make it difficult to be certain about what you are eating.

Remember, all vegetarians make mistakes and eat animal products at some point. It really is unavoidable unless you always cook your own food and never buy anything processed. The most important thing I've learned over the years is to go easy on myself. It's a lifelong learning process. And I try to maintain a sense of humor when mistakes do happen.  Eating meat goes against everything I believe in, but it's not going to kill me.

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