When I went vegetarian, the only other people I knew who were veg were my 3 best friends. We were all new at this, and since we were the artsy dreamers and not the most sciency of people, we definitely had no idea what all of those hard-to-pronounce chemical names were on ingredient labels. The internet was still young–hello, dial up–and the vegan explosion was not yet in full swing, so how did we find out if mono- and diglycerides were vegan (they may or may not be)? What about gluten (yes) or gelatin (nope)? I can remember calling Wonder Bread–yes, I had highly refined tastes–to ask them about ingredients in their bread. I called many other companies, too, with my questions, and they were usually good at getting back to me. Occasionally, I still may need to contact a company, but there are so many resources to tap into now that it's often unnecessary.
There are apps you can download to your phone to help you while you're shopping, books like Veganissimo A to Z, and websites like the Vegetarian Resource Group's that you can reference for labeling and ingredient questions. You can even go on social media to inquire about whether something is vegan (a great Twitter account that I follow is @veggieWHAT. If you have a question just tag it with #vegq, and she'll retweet it so that followers have a chance to answer). There is no certainly no shortage of resources. I know it's just that technology has advanced so quickly and that veganism is booming, but I feel like an old-timer when I say, “Back in my day, we had to call the company to see if something was vegan.” I may at times utter the phrase “Back in my day...”, but at least I don't say “The Twitter” or “Facebooks”. Ha!
Read up on your vegan and non-vegan ingredients and pretty soon you, too, will know that lactic acid has no relation to lactose (milk), but sterol lactate does. You'll know that "natural flavors" can include castoreum, which is a substance excreted from a gland near a beaver's anus. The more you learn, the more at peace you'll be that you're not ingesting the bi-products of immense suffering, and the better you will be able to help other new vegans navigate through the murky world of food label reading.