When our children became vegetarian, it took years for us to get wise to some of the hidden animal products in foods. If you're new to vegetarianism — or even if you're not — you might be surprised at the potential pitfalls in these common dishes and food products.

1) Miso Soup

Many Japanese foods are a great treat if you don't eat meat or fish. Many others are not, though, including some versions of miso soup that contain dashi, an umami-rich broth often made with flakes of dried fish. Dashi is used in many other delicious dishes where its presence isn't advertised, such as egg tamago. Luckily, you can cook up a fish-free dashi that contains only dried kelp and water, or prepare a miso soup without using added dashi, using recipes like the ones here and here. Another detail to consider: Some miso pastes come with dashi already included, so check the label on the tub before adding it to any recipe.

Miso Soup | Photo by LilSnoo
Miso Soup | Photo by LilSnoo

2) Marshmallows, Under-The-Sea Salad, and Yogurt?

When my kids first asked if their favorite desserts were meat-free, I automatically said that they were. (Bacon aside, whoever heard of meat desserts?) Parenting fail! Many desserts contain gelatin, and a lot of gelatin is made using animal byproducts. Some users argue that the animal parts are so highly processed they no longer count as meat, but even my sugar fiend of a 6-year-old found that argument unconvincing. So... no more marshmallows in their cocoa or crispy rice treats after school? Goodbye to adorable Under-The-Sea-Salads when grandma comes to visit?

Not necessarily.

It is possible to find store-bought marshmallows that are made without gelatin. (For instance, Trader Joe's introduced a line in 2016.) You can also make your own vegan version. If you're going to make marshmallows of any sort, here are some good tips. Making your own vegetarian gelatin is tougher, but possible, and it's also sold in some markets.

The gelatin surprises don't end there. Even some brands of yogurt (or selected flavors in one brand) are made with gelatin. A little label-reading will help you figure it out, but, as with most foods, a foolproof option is to make your own.

homemade marshmallows on a drying rack
Photo by Mackenzie Schieck

My kids could live on tacos or burritos made with canned refried beans and grated cheese. The biggest pitfall here would be the beans, which sound thoroughly vegetarian, but often contain lard. Seek out cans of refried beans that are specifically labeled as vegetarian, or even make your own with recipes like this one. The same warning holds for flour tortillas, which are also sometimes made with lard. Aim for tortillas that are instead made with vegetable shortening, like the version here.

Refried Beans Without the Refry. Photo by CookinBug
Photo by CookinBug

4) Condiments and Dressings

It sounds like common sense to avoid some of these dressings and condiments, but even sensible people slip up sometimes. Many people know, for instance, that classic Caesar salad dressing contains anchovy paste or anchovy fillets -- but I forgot that when ordering a side salad from our favorite pizza delivery place. Then there are my go-to Asian salad and rice bowl dressings, variations on this one, containing lime juice, rice vinegar, and... fish sauce. My oldest kid asked one day "Does that mean it has fish in it?" Ouch. Of course it does. Be aware that Worcestershire sauce also traditionally contains anchovies. You can look for anchovy-free versions in supermarkets, or try making your own.

Caesar salad with Parmesan rounds
Photo by Meredith

5) Pies and Pastries

Oh, lard. It makes such a flaky dough, hiding out in treats like these biscuits and cookies. Some of my favorite bakers swear by lard as a key ingredient in their pie crusts. Luckily, it's also common and easy to make great pies and pastries using butter or other vegetarian (or even vegan) shortenings. Check over here for some great step-by-step tips on making pie crusts.

If there's a common thread to all of these surprising-to-us finds, it applies to more than just vegetarianism: It's a good idea to read labels and avoid assumptions. And after that, it's good to dig in and enjoy.

apple pie with a decorative top crust
Apple Pie by Grandma Ople | Photo by Joy Dambek Smith
| Credit: Joy Dambek Smith

Explore more than 6,000 Vegetarian Recipes on our site.