Is cheese suitable for vegetarians? I always thought it was and I’d assume most of us would say ‘yes’.
Cheese is a popular ingredient for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. In restaurants and shops vegetarian options often contain cheese. Therefore why are some cheeses labelled ‘suitable for vegetarians’ and some are not? I wanted to find the answer…
The truth is that lot of cheeses aren’t vegetarian. The majority of cheese contain Rennet. It is used to curdle the casein in milk to make cheese firm. Rennet is obtained from the fourth stomach of an unweaned calf, kid goat or lamb after slaughter. Rennet is complex set of enzymes that helps young mammals digest their mothers’ milk. Each species has specific enzymes see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rennet
So what does this mean for vegetarians, Hindus or people that prefer not to eat stomach? The good news is that there is also non-animal derived rennet. These are either vegetable, microbial or fermentation produced chymosin that is widely used in modern industrial cheese making as it is cheaper than animal rennet.
Here is our guide to buying cheese. When buying cheese how do we know if a cheese contains animal-rennet or not? Check the label and ask the question. If it doesn’t state that is it suitable for vegetarians it can be difficult to determine if it does or doesn’t contain animal-rennet as it is often not listed in the ingredients, it is safer to assume it does.
The type of cheese should also be considered. Traditional European and Old-World style cheeses often use animal-rennet. For cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano that are D.O. (designation of origin) protected, cheese-makers have to use an exact method and exact ingredients in order to legally be called by that name.
Here is a list of cheese types that are always or often contain animal-rennet:
- Parmigiano Reggiano / parmesan
- Pecorino Romano
- Grana Padano
I did a quick review using the Waitrose website to determine the use of animal rennet giving the number of the total and percentage that are suitable for vegetarians by type:
- Cheddar – 46 out of 64, 72%
- Artisan (Waitrose 1) – 12 out of 42, 28%
- Brie and Camembert – 3 of 13, 23%
- Soft and cottage – 44 of 48, 91%
- Blue Cheese – 6 of 23, 26%
- Parmesan and pecorino – 1 of 16, 0.06%
- Mozzarella and ricotta – 18 of 19, 95%
Where do the calves, kid goats and lambs come from? Due to the fact they have to be slaughter before they are weaned the animals that are used to create the animal rennet are very young. It might seem that this is a wasteful extravagance to slaughter very young animals just for part of their 4th stomach. The irony is there is a plentiful supply of very young animal for this purpose due to the dairy industry itself. To keep a plentiful supply of milk for humans to consume, mothers give birth on a constant cycle, the baby is taken from the mothers hours or days after birth. The babies are considered a by-product of the dairy industry, the females often raised as next generation dairy herd, the males raised for veal, spring lamb, or immediately slaughter. Whether considering cheese, milk, cream, butter or yogurt, this is the reality of dairy.
Parting thoughts. So what’s the big deal? It might seem that this is an article for vegetarians, maybe only ‘strict’ vegetarians that choose not to eat produce that contains dead animals, but this issue should raise wider questions for us all to consider.
- We can all gain from learning what is in our food and not making assumptions.
- We should consider the reality of the diary industry and the not so ‘white’ reputation that is portrayed.
- Think about wider dietary topics; for example what is Casein and why is there a need for an enzyme to break down protein that is specific to each species?
Unexpectedly the main impact of researching this topic has made me realise that dairy is intended for babies and more over babies of another species. We are the only species that consumes dairy after we are weaned. Now I think about that it raises more questions about why we eat what we eat and whether it is right (watch this space – I’ve found some very interesting literature on lactose intolerance, type 1 diabetes, breast cancer and more).
Enjoy cheese as a treat knowing the chooses you are making. Health wise we often eat too much cheese so use this as an excuse to cut down or give it up. Check the labels for the Vegetarian logo. Source organic produce (as the highest ethical standards). Take care on the cheese front next time you are cooking for your veggie friends!
Say cheese! The Ethical Omnivore.