Not All Cheese is Vegetarian-Friendly—Here’s How to Tell When It’s Not
Plus tips to make vegetarian cheese shopping way easier.
I remember the very first time I made the connection that not all cheese is vegetarian. I was a senior in high school working my first job as a cashier at Panera Bread. A customer asked me a question about the macaroni and cheese. I pulled out the (very detailed) ingredient binder and flipped to the page—and there it was. Listed in parenthesis next to cheddar cheese was microbial and animal enzymes.
I thought, "Wait… animal enzymes?" At that point I had been a vegetarian for around eight years. I had ordered that macaroni and cheese many times before, and easily consumed hundreds of other meals containing cheese at restaurants. And now I was seeing an ingredient called animal enzymes?
Since then, I've seen articles pop up on plenty of food-related websites claiming cheese isn't vegetarian and we've all been lied to. That's a bit dramatic. I've learned with a little research that this is only sometimes true, and there's really no need to panic. Let's start with the basics.
What makes cheese not vegetarian?
The short answer is exactly what I found in the macaroni and cheese—enzymes. Many cheeses, especially European cheeses, use an enzyme called rennet (RIHN-niht) to help curdle the cheese. This enzyme commonly comes from the fourth stomach of young animals (typically cows, but sometimes sheep, goats, or pigs), according to The New Food Lover's Companion.
In recent years, as more vegetarian-friendly products have expanded in mainstream popularity and cows are being expected to live longer to provide milk and meat, producers (specifically, American producers) have replaced animal rennet with vegetarian or microbial rennet. These are made from plants, bacteria, and fungi without the use of animal cells, according to The New Food Lover's Companion.
So, how do you know what cheeses are vegetarian-friendly?
The first step is to ask yourself what you're willing to consume. I made the personal decision to check cheeses when possible (like at the supermarket) and assume acceptable when an ingredient list isn't readily available (like at a restaurant). That means I'll still take a slice of pizza from the local pizzeria, but you won't catch me eating Panera's macaroni and cheese again, because I know for a fact this isn't a vegetarian choice. It's a compromise that essentially allows me to do the best I can—in most meal situations, I'll be able to make an informed choice, but when that's out of my control, I'm not going to create an unproportional level of drama about it.
If you want to avoid rennet at all costs, you'll most likely have to avoid cheese in places you can't check the ingredient list (say goodbye to a spoonful of Parmesan at the local Italian joint). Then, when you head to the supermarket or have access to ingredients, you'll simply want to keep a close eye out for rennet.
Now, not all cheese contains animal rennet. Soft dairy products that contain whey (like paneer, ricotta, yogurt, and cream cheese) practically never have rennet, because of how they're traditionally made. Many cheeses at specialty cheese shops, or even at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, will typically list suitable for vegetarians, vegetarian rennet, or microbial rennet on the ingredient list. This indicates it's acceptable for meat-free consumers. Occasionally the term enzymes is used, and unfortunately this is a toss up, according to The Vegetarian Times. You'll have to check with the manufacturer to determine if the enzymes are derived from animals.
Cheeses vegetarians can eat
Despite commonplace wisdom that Parmesan isn't vegetarian, there are definitely brands out there that now make all kind of cheeses veg-friendly. Some popular brands that sell vegetarian-friendly cheeses include Organic Valley, Bel Gioioso, Cabot, Applegate, Tillamook, Amy's, Laughing Cow, and Horizon. Most importantly, just check the ingredient list of any cheese you can.
Lastly, if you want a guarantee of vegetarian-friendly cheese, shop for certified kosher cheeses. This is usually indicated by a K or OU symbol on the container. Due to the Jewish religious ruling that milk and meat products cannot be consumed together, kosher cheeses are made without any animal products. Many supermarkets have a small kosher section, usually in the International aisle, selling brands like Miller's and Haolam which are certified kosher and safe for vegetarians.
So, the next time your friend sends you a Facebook message with an article exclaiming CHEESE ISN'T VEGETARIAN for the nineteenth time, just send this one right back. Yes, some cheeses aren't vegetarian—but tons are.