Before we get started, I should establish a few things about vegetarians and vegans. There isn't one type of vegetarian, nor is there one type of vegan. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy, but not meat. Lacto- and ovo-vegetarians eat dairy and eggs, respectively. Vegans exclude all three things from their diet and do not use animal-derived products like silk, wool or pearls.
So, now for the meat of the issue. The dead animal business is huge and hard to avoid. Here's a list of the biggest animal-derived ingredients to watch out for:
The biggest threat to cruelty-free living is gelatin. Gelatin is a thickener and texturizer made from the bones, skin and connective tissue of pigs and cows. Gelatin is common in lots of products: some frostings and candies, as well as more practical foods such as yogurt.
Luckily, companies are very up-front about using it and print this information in the ingredients label. Many companies are replacing gelatin with soy lecithin, a completely vegan product. If you're looking for the perfect stocking stuffer for a vegetarian friend or family member, the chocolate Santa Clauses at CosmosVeganShop.com are made without any animal-derived thickening agents.
Meat Powders and Broths
The next offender is meat-based broths and powders. This seems like an obvious one, but meat bases show up in far too many places. Many brands of boxed stuffing contain trace amounts of chicken powder, while gravy often includes beef juice and baked beans often harbor pork extracts.
What's worse, these ingredients are often hidden under the vague term of "natural flavors." Vegetarians who haven't had any meat in a long time can get nasty upset stomachs from unknowingly eating meat products. Often, when a family member unfamiliar with a vegetarian diet prepares Christmas dinner, they don't realize "natural flavors" are usually meat-based, making Christmas night less than silent and holy for the unwitting long-time vegetarian or vegan. The bottom line is that if something says "natural flavors," either call the company to inquire about the composition or don't eat it. Remember, the vast majority of black beans don't have animal extracts, and vegan stuffings can be purchased at most grocery stores. Websites like IVU.org and VeganVillage.co.uk have recipes for vegan gravy that are easy to make.
Sugar, believe it or not, is frequently not vegetarian. Avoiding refined sugar is the best way to ensure that you aren't getting sugar that has been decolorized using bone char. If you aren't quite ready to do that, bear in mind that granulated cane sugar and brown sugar are completely vegan and can be incorporated into your holiday baking.
If you like cheese, watch out for rennet. Rennet is a coagulant obtained by butchering a cow, emptying its fourth stomach of food and then salting, scraping and drying it. Then the manufacturers soak the stomach in salt solution to get all of the product. This ingredient is always labeled on the package, and many quality cheeses don't make use of it. However, other brands, including many grocery store brands, still do.
Those are the big offenders, but be sure to check the box on the right side of the page for a list of less prevalent animal products you might find in your food.
You might be scratching your head right about now. After all, if the meat industry is so good at getting their product into nearly everything, is there anything besides fruits, vegetables and nuts that vegetarians and vegans can eat?
The answer is an emphatic yes. There are lots of delicious meat substitutes and dairy replacement products on the market.
Anything you can conceivably eat for dinner as a meat-eater has a vegetarian analog. Morningstar Farms, one of the largest marketers of meat substitutes, makes an alternative version of nearly every meat product you can buy. They don't just make plain old veggie burgers; they make gourmet varieties such as Philly Cheese Steak, Spicy Black Bean and Mushroom Lover's. If you're looking for something a little more formal, they also make chicken and steak strips that can be eaten alone or used in pasta or ethnic dishes such as stir fry. And some are realistic enough to be served to the entire extended family without anyone being the wiser. Not all of Morningstar's products are vegan, but they are the most widely distributed meat substitute brands in the country.
Vegan "dairy" products are also rising in popularity and availability. Most grocery stores carry the big cheeses - - mozzarella, cheddar and American - - in vegan varieties. Less common flavors like Monterrey Jack and nacho usually have to be ordered off of the Internet. Distributors like FollowYourHeart.com and Cheese.com carry them.
Obtaining soymilk is no problem for most vegans. Almost all grocery stores carry it. While it's a great beverage, it can be problematic in cooking. Because soymilk tends to be on the sweet side, it is better suited for use in sweets. Additionally, soymilk can curdle if it is exposed to overly acidic conditions, so figure that into your baking.
Being a vegetarian or vegan is attractive to many people for a wide range of reasons. Although meat products are nearly ubiquitous in many Americans' diets, with some creativity and willingness to reach outside the box, being a vegetarian or a vegan can be a rewarding and fulfilling choice.