Is cheese vegetarian?
Some cheese is vegetarian, but not all cheese is. In order to know if the cheese is vegetarian, you have to know the source of the rennet (enzymes) being used to make the cheese. Some cheese is made with microbial rennet (also called vegetable rennet), which is vegetarian, and some cheese is made with animal rennet, which is not vegetarian. The type of rennet (enzymes) used in making the cheese determines whether or not it is vegetarian.
Rennet is used in the cheese making process as a coagulant. A coagulant is something that changes a liquid into a solid. The enzymes, or rennet, is what makes milk become solid into cheese. Some form of rennet is used in the making of nearly all cheese. You can make rennetless cheese yourself, or may be able to find some to purchase if you get lucky, but nearly all the cheese you find in stores and restaurants will have been made with some form of rennet.
Here are some of the most common types of rennet used to make cheese:
- Animal rennet (also called rennin or chymosin) is an enzyme. The enzymes are produced in the stomach of a baby calf, and they are used to help with the digestion of mother's milk. In order for animal rennet to be used in cheese, the animal is killed and the enzymes (rennet) is taken from their stomach. This means that animal rennet is not vegetarian, and the cheese that is made with it is not vegetarian. This type of rennet may be listed as rennet, animal rennet, enzymes, rennin, or chymosin.
- Microbial rennet is derived from molds. No animals are killed to obtain microbial rennet, therefore it is vegetarian. Cheeses that are made with microbial rennet are vegetarian, assuming they don't have other non-vegetarian ingredients (that would be rare, but it does happen, such as them using the enzyme lipase). Microbial rennet may also be called vegetable rennet. Microbial rennet may be labeled as rennet, microbial rennet, vegetarian rennet, or enzymes. Therefore, if you see "enzymes" listed on the ingredient list, you have to contact the company to ask the source of the enzymes.
The coagulation process can also be done by using vinegar, citric acid, or lemon juice. The two most popular ones used in America are animal rennet and microbial rennet. Typically speaking, the cheapest source of rennet is microbial, which is why many cheese producers use it. Generations ago, most cheese was made using animal rennet, but today it's less common in America. This is largely due to the cost savings that using microbial rennet provides.
How do you tell if your cheese is vegetarian?
If you are buying packaged cheese, check the product labeling. Some companies list on the product if they use microbial rennet or animal rennet. If they do not list it on the package, the only way to know is to contact the company. If they only list a vague "rennet" or "enzymes," you will need to contact the company to inquire about the source. The company is always willing to answer the question of whether they use animal or microbial rennet. When it comes to dining out, the restaurant may or may not know the source of the rennet in the cheese. You can inquire about it to see if they know.
In America, most of the mozzarella used in pizza shops is vegetarian. Most asiago and parmesan cheese is not vegetarian (they are almost always made with animal rennet). However, you can get vegetarian parmesan cheese. Many cheddar cheese flavors are used on snacks, such as Cheetos and Doritos, and they are not vegetarian (yet the Dorito taco shells at Taco Bell are vegetarian). Cheez-its, on the other hand, are vegetarian.
When it comes to imported cheese, if it is coming from Europe it is likely to not be vegetarian. European cheese is made with animal rennet most of the time, and some countries in Europe require that it contain animal rennet to even be called cheese. So if you are a vegetarian who is purchasing cheese, steer clear of cheeses imported from Europe.
Choosing Your Cheese
If you are a vegetarian who is comfortable consuming dairy cheese, you will want to make sure you find out the source of the rennet / enzymes that have been used in making the cheese. Opt for the the ones that use microbial or vegetable rennet sources. Avoid those that use animal rennet, because they are not vegetarian.
Today, there are also numerous good vegan cheeses that are available. Learn more about which ones are good and what each variety works best for. Vegan cheeses have come a long way in the last decade, and even many mainstream restaurants, such as Mellow Mushroom, are now offering them on their menu. To read my picks for best vegan cheeses, click here.