How to remain a vegetarian in the US

A long time back, during one of my first few visits to the US, I was telling someone, that I was a vegetarian. A friend who was listening to that conversation said – “probably not anymore”. He used to say that when you eat outside food, you can never be sure of what you are eating. It bothered me a lot, but I did not have much of a choice at that time.

Things are different now and I am a little better at identifying what I should or should not eat. What I have found is that it really is not as simple here as it is in India where all food packaging has to be marked with a green or a red dot to identify it as suitable for vegetarians (green) or not (red). Animal by-products are used in a variety of different forms, in foods that you cannot imagine would need them.

So I decided to make a list of such foods to avoid if you are a vegetarian and wish to do so. If you’ve been living in the US for a long time, you probably already know about these. This post is mainly meant to help vegetarians who have recently moved to the United States. So, here goes!

1. Cheese: Surprised? I was too. Probably because ‘paneer’, the Indian cheese, can be made at home from ingredients as simple as milk and lemon juice. The various different types of cheeses you get here though, contain an enzyme called ‘rennet’ which is usually derived from the lining of the stomach of calves. It is not always clearly listed in the ingredients. Many times you will just see ‘enzymes’ in the ingredients of the cheese. Most likely it is still animal-derived rennet. To avoid this, when I eat out, I ask them to leave the cheese out of my dish. You can also buy cheese made from microbial rennet at some health food stores or the good old Amul cheese with a big green dot on the package from an Indian store. If you are craving pizza, Little Caesar is one pizza place that uses vegetarian cheese (made from microbial rennet) on their pizzas.

2. Yogurt: I’m not kidding. There is a reason that the yogurt that you buy is so smooth and creamy. Many of the varieties that are available contain gelatin, which is derived from the collagen inside the bones of animals. If that bothers you, use the variety that contains pectin, which serves similar purpose as gelatin but is derived from plant sources. And then use it to make your own gelatin-free yogurt at home. It is worth the little effort!

3. Gummy bears/candies: These contain gelatin too. Think of anything that has jelly-like consistency and an unnatural neither-solid-nor-liquid form – jello, gummy bears, marshmallows – they all have gelatin.

4. Refried beans: One of the few foods I can eat in a Mexican restaurant. Originally it was made out of lard (pig/beef fat). These days many restaurants do not use lard but some still may. It never harms to confirm, and re-confirm, even if you annoy the hell out of the server, even if they don’t understand a word you say and you don’t understand a word they say.

5. Soups/sauces: Even if the soup or sauce itself doesn’t have any meat, it could have been based on a beef/chicken/meat broth. Make sure your soup is made with vegetable broth. Recently I found out that my favorite alfredo sauce (served with pasta in Italian restaurants) can sometimes also contain chicken broth. So now I always double-check before ordering.

6. Thai food: Their seemingly harmless (sorry meat-eaters!) veggie fried rice and soup dishes may have a fish or shrimp-based sauce. I used to go to a family run place that served a “vegetarian” soup I LOVED. Although they are the nicest people ever, we did have some communication problems. After my repeatedly asking whether that soup was vegetarian even after getting an answer in the affirmative, they finally got fed up and brought out the bottle of the sauce they used in that soup. It had shrimp in it! I was a vegetarian no more! If this had happened a couple of years ago, I would have probably gone to the restroom and wept for the animal I just ate, but a lot has changed in the last couple of years. Now I just go to the Thai food place that explicitly lists food items as vegetarian on their menu. Goodbye nice Thai couple :(.

7. ‘Burger’ always means it is has beef. So does a ‘patty melt’, even if the description doesn’t mention any meat. It is not like India, where a “burger” can have a veggie patty. Trust me. I found this out the hard way.

8. Caesar dressing for salads has anchovies – a type of fish (yuck!) (sorry again meat-eaters!).

That’s all I can think of right now. If there are any other foods that you know of, that vegetarians should avoid, please do share. I will be forever grateful!


12 thoughts on “How to remain a vegetarian in the US

      • Yes absolutely! Now I will be even more careful while picking up stuff in grocery store! Thanks for sharing this information!

  1. Indeed, this post is highly informative for the vegetarians. Since I came here, I’ve always been so perplexed at the type of things added to so called vegetarian food materials and this really is unimaginable. To add to your list is cochineal extract. I recently found this thing when I got my favorite juice, Dole-orange strawberry banana (with new packaging and color), only to find later that the cochineal extract used for the color in the juice is derived from some insects… who could imagine something from insects in the fruit juices :(

  2. And I used to think only labels in India are misleading…. they never mention allergies, never mention the tiny bits of gluten or casein or even nuts…. What about toothpaste???? That ways, you are left with little choices… interesting post…

    • Thanks Jaspreet. In contrast, food labels in the US are pretty good at providing allergen information. In India, food allergies seem to be less common. Or people are just not that aware of them. Same here about vegetarianism. I guess the kind of information food companies provide is somehow driven by the awareness levels and the impact it has on people.

  3. I like this information:).I didn’t know before and now I am aware of our vegetarian food.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Wonderful article Shivani.. I once bought something thinking it wasa toothpaste in Norway; and the lady at the counter said it was chicken paste :-( and is used as a spread for bread,etc…
    I so wished I knew Norwegian before picking that up.

    Badly miss our Indian Mc Donalds, but here I found that there is nothing called a veggie burger.. :( :( I really don’t find many options when I don’t feel like cooking.. :-( :-(

    • I hope you found out before using the “toothpaste” :). Seriously, there are places where you can eat if you want to take a break from cooking. I’ll have to send you a list :)

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