People who follow a vegetarian diet often avoid foods and substitutes that involve the death of animals. Still, some foods such as certain cheeses can fall into an intermediate zone. Can vegetarians eat cheese?
Before entering the fabulous world of cheeses, vegetarians should know which types are most suitable for those who follow this diet in the strictest way.
Is the cheese suitable for vegetarians?
Whether this food is suitable for vegetarians depends on the type of vegetarianism we follow. Vegetarians generally avoid consuming specific animal products. But as we well know, there are different types of vegetarians, including lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, fish-vegetarians, and vegans.
All of these types of vegetarianism avoid red meat, poultry, and other products that require the sacrifice of an animal. Since dairy products, including cheese, do not require the sacrifice of an animal, they generally allow it in their diet. Since most cheeses are made from cow’s or goat’s milk, most types are not suitable for vegans. However, there are more and more options made with soy or nuts.
Keep in mind that some cheeses are made with animal by-products to give them texture and flavor. A common animal by-product used in making cheese is rennet. Rennet is a combination of enzymes that work together to thicken dairy-based milk. Although there are different types of rennet, the most widely used is found in the stomach lining of animals, including cows, rabbits, pigs, and goats. Although animals are not typically slaughtered exclusively for their rennet, some people on a vegetarian diet may not feel comfortable eating this animal by-product.
It is worth noting that some forms of rennet are produced without the use of animals. Vegetable rennet is produced through a fermentation process in which bacteria, fungi, or yeasts are mixed with rennet-producing animal genes to create an enzyme that acts as chymosin. Another type is vegetable rennet, which is also made to mimic animal rennet. It is obtained from thistle plants such as artichokes or nettles and is used in many artisan cheeses from Portugal. Mold rennet can also act as chymosin. However, this is not typically used in cheese making as it can impart a bitter taste.
What cheeses have animal rennet?
The best way to tell if a cheese contains rennet or other animal by-products is to read the label, if possible. We will search for the keywords rennet, animal enzymes, traditional rennet, or pepsin. Cheesemakers using plant-based rennet will typically list it as thistle rennet, vegetarian rennet, or vegetable rennet in the ingredient list.
However, cheese producers are not required to disclose what type of rennet they use. So if the packaging only says “enzymes” and does not indicate that the product is suitable for vegetarians, we can assume that animal rennet was used. If we want to be sure, we will look for certified cheeses, such as kosher. According to Jewish religious laws, milk and meat should never be mixed. Therefore, kosher cheese will not contain animal rennet.
But even if we don’t have access to an ingredient list, keep in mind that rennet is generally added to many European and European-style cheeses. It is almost always used in:
- Roman pecorino
- Traditional mozzarella cheese
- Goat cheese
Softer cheeses like cream cheese or cottage cheese are not made with rennet, as the dairy is curdled with vinegar or lemon juice. Therefore, these are safer bets if you avoid animal rennet.