The first time I ever tried going vegetarian was in high school. I was dating a vegetarian, which was more than enough motivation at the time. Unfortunately, the relationship didn’t last, and neither did my diet.
Although I went right back to eating meat, I had learned a lot about the meat industry during my brief foray into vegetarianism. The cruelty of factory farming stuck with me, and I although I continued to eat meat, I also continued to feel guilty about it.
Ever since then, I’ve been conflicted about eating meat, but never quite enough to actually stop. Eating meat is the default in our society, and I always chose the easy option of going with the flow.
Even though eating animals — and factory farming in particular — struck me as immoral, I didn’t actually do anything about it. Instead, I tried my best to avoid thinking about it.
The trouble with this strategy is that ignoring guilty feelings don’t make them go away. Deep down, I knew that eating animals didn’t align with my moral beliefs. I started to read more about the meat industry, and finally, I decided it was time to actually act on my feelings.
Over the last few years, I started to slowly reduce the amount of meat that I ate. Before I knew it, I had cut down to only eating meat about once a week. Near the end of last year, I decided to cut meat from my diet entirely.
Since my transition was so gradual, it actually went more smoothly than I expected. Giving up meat felt like a weight off my shoulders. It was nice to finally be living my life in alignment with my beliefs, instead of just ignoring them.
I’ll admit that I did miss the taste of meat, and I caved in a few times over the first couple of months. Eventually though, I really did stop eating animals altogether.
Or so I thought.
Hidden Animal Ingredients
My biggest frustration since going vegetarian has been how many foods have hidden animal ingredients. Although I haven’t intentionally eaten animals in nearly a year, I’ve mistakenly eaten them a shocking number of times.
When I quit eating meat, I thought it would be pretty obvious which foods fit my diet and which didn’t. Steaks and chicken were out. Lentils and tofu were in. Unlike vegans, I had also decided to keep eating dairy and eggs — at least for the time being.
Unfortunately, it turns out that many foods contain animal ingredients that I never would have expected.
The biggest culprit for hidden animal ingredients is gelatin, which is made from animal collagen. Gelatin is used for a few different purposes, but most commonly as a gelling agent. I had heard of gelatin before going vegetarian, but I never realized just how ubiquitous it was until I started trying to avoid it.
Gelatin is present in everything from breakfast cereals to candy. I recently discovered that my daily multivitamin contains gelatin, which means I’ve been accidentally breaking my diet every single day since it started.
Another surprising animal ingredient is rennet, which is typically extracted from calf stomachs. Rennet is used in the production of most cheeses. Although I knew that cheese wasn’t vegan, I had no clue that it actually contained part of an animal.
Even foods that sound as if they are made for vegetarians, like tofu fried rice, have turned out to include animal ingredients (in this case, fish sauce). Many restaurants use fish sauce, oyster sauce, and beef stock as ingredients in dishes that otherwise sound completely safe for vegetarians.
The lesson that I’ve learned from these hidden ingredients is that you should never take for granted that a food doesn’t contain animals. My tipping point was when I discovered that my daily multivitamin contained gelatin. It had never even occurred to me that vitamins would contain animal products.
It’s incredibly aggravating how difficult it is to cut animal ingredients from my diet. It’s also shocking just how widespread these hidden ingredients are. Ultimately though, I know that if I want to really be vegetarian, it’s up to me to do the work. I hope that as more of us avoid foods with hidden animal ingredients, more companies will turn to vegetarian alternatives.
For now, I’ll read the ingredient list for every food I buy, and I won’t be shy about asking restaurants to confirm whether a dish is vegetarian. I’m hopeful that with careful diligence, I’ll be able to truly make sure that there are no animals left in my diet.