Is parmesan cheese vegetarian? That's a common question that people have, and for good reason. It can be a bit confusing to figure it out sometimes! We already know that it's not vegan, because parmesan cheese does contain animal ingredients. But whether or not it is vegetarian comes down to the type of enzymes that are used in the process of making it. That's where the confusion usually comes in.
Traditionally, cheese was made using animal rennet that was taken from the stomach of slaughtered calves. This is definitely not a vegetarian ingredient! However, most cheeses in America are not made using animal rennet anymore. Most of them use microbial/bacteria rennet sources, which are vegetarian. Determining what type of rennet was used in the making of the cheese is where it gets tricky. It's not something companies usually offer up on the label so that everyone knows the source of rennet. Wouldn't it be nice if they did?
Here's a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to determining if parmesan cheese is vegetarian:
- If it is an imported parmesan cheese you can bet that it likely is not vegetarian. The European Union has strict rules over what can be called parmesan and for it to meet the definition it has to have animal rennet. So if the parmesan was imported it is most likely not vegetarian.
- Parmesan products in a bottle that come from the grocery stores in the US may be vegetarian. Again, it all depends on the source of rennet used. Some use vegetarian rennet sources, like one that is offered by BelGioioso, but something like the Kraft parmesan cheese may or may not be, depending on if the ingredient list includes lipase. Kraft grated parmesan itself has microbial rennet, but some bottles may include lipase, which is not a vegetarian ingredient. If you really want a vegetarian parmesan you will have to read labels and contact companies that don't disclose the type of rennet they use on their product packaging or on their website.
The good news is that there are parmesan cheese alternatives that are both vegetarian and vegan. Today you can easily find products like Go Veggie parmesan and NOOCH IT! in mainstream grocery stores and online. And they taste good! It's also important to note here that Asiago cheese is another one that is usually not vegetarian and for the same reasons that many parmesan cheeses are not vegetarian. Again, there are companies that do make vegetarian Asiago varieties, including BelGioioso. Overall, when in doubt and when you don't know for sure if a parmesan is vegetarian you should avoid it and assume it is not. If you are a vegan this is no problem, because you will be avoiding them either way and reaching for the tasty alternatives that you can find today!