"What's really in This?"

Tips for Obtaining Ingredient Information from Food Companies

The Vegetarian Resource Group received a request from a reader who was experiencing difficulty obtaining ingredient information from a large beverage company. He asked us to provide advice about getting accurate answers from corporations. Here are some of our suggestions.

By: VRG Research Director Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

Scour the Web first. Look for an ingredients statement or list for the product. Start at the company's main website. Don't overlook blogs and forums.

Reserve judgment about what you read on the Web until you get confirmation. Even a company website may need updating. Approach contacting companies like it was a confirmation hearing for ingredients. Don't be confrontational, but be serious in your quest for company transparency about its ingredients.

If asked why you want to know, state "I'm a vegan and don't consume x, y, and z. I want to know if the product contains x, y, or z or any ingredients derived from x, y, and z." Be very specific about your personal dietary choices.

If you receive information that contradicts a company's website or what you received from an email or previous call, ask about the discrepancy in a tactful, neutral manner. Be specific. Provide: URL, name of person asked, date and time. If you find the explanation questionable, ask to speak to someone else or be called back once the issue is investigated to receive the correct information.

Ask a friend to cross-check. See if someone else gets the same exact answer you did to the same question.

Email once. Email twice. Try contacting the company on different days of different weeks at different times, but keep wording your question exactly the same way.

Keep it simple. State one question per call or email in as few words as possible (e.g., "Are the natural flavors in the product derived from meat, eggs, or dairy?"). If it's a packaged good, have a complete product name and, if possible, a SKU number handy.

Be ready with definitions from our Guide to Food Ingredients, which you should read and understand in advance so that you can respond with clarity. Find it online at: www.vrg.org/ingredients/index.php.

Don't make assumptions. The terms 'vegetarian' and 'vegan' mean varying things to people, so never just ask, "Is the product vegan?" Rather, refer to your specific concern: "Do any of the product's ingredients come from meat, dairy, or eggs?"

Call once. Call twice. Call on varying days of the week at a variety of times; speak to different people — but keep your question the same.

Be persistent and follow through! Be empathetic and supportive to the company employee, but keep asking until you are satisfied with the response you get.

When in doubt, rephrase the question and ask it again in a follow-up call or e-mail to the first response you received (e.g., "Is there anything from animals, including meat or enzymes, or from eggs, or from milk, such as casein or whey, in the natural flavors in the product?"). Make sure you've understood correctly. Listen for inconsistencies or vagueness. Write the responses down. Note the number called, the person asked, the date, and time.

Go higher. Ask to speak to a supervisor or someone in the quality assurance department. They will know more.

If you see or hear any contradictions as you conduct your vegan and vegetarian ingredients research, please do not hesitate to let us know at vrg@vrg.org.