I was pretty sad when I learned in high school that cheese was not vegetarian. It’s so delicious! But after I stopped eating it I stopped missing it. A few years ago I learned that some cheeses are vegetarian, and have been very happy ever since.
I’ve noticed just in the past year that consciousness is raising of non-vegetarian cheese ingredients. There was an NPR segment in part on this, and staff at cheese stores are usually knowledgeable about which of their cheeses are vegetarian.
Still, most people don’t know that cheese isn’t always vegetarian, and it’s tricky to figure out which cheeses are vegetarian. Good labeling is the next frontier! But in an effort to increase vegetarian cheese awareness (and procrastinate), I put together some information below.
Why are some cheeses not vegetarian?
Milk doesn’t coagulate itself. Cheese makers use an ingredient called rennet to get the milk to coagulate. Rennet often comes from young ruminant animals, which are animals that have a special stomach that is able to ferment certain plant nutrients. Cows, goats, and llamas are examples of ruminant animals. (Though cheese rennet doesn’t usually come from llamas!)
Specifically, rennet comes from a young ruminant animal’s abomasum, which is one part of this special stomach.
Some rennet, though, is made from microbial coagulants. This rennet (typically called “Microbial enzymes” or sometimes “vegetable/non-animal rennet”) is vegetarian.
How do you know if a cheese is vegetarian?
It’s difficult. Rarely can you figure this out from reading the ingredients, which is unfortunate. A minority of cheeses actually list “animal rennet” in their ingredients. These cheeses are clearly not vegetarian. Another minority of cheeses list “non-animal rennet” as an ingredient. These cheeses are vegetarian.
Which cheeses are vegetarian?
Unfortunately cheaper cheeses are rarely vegetarian. The one exception to this is Cabot Cheese. All of their cheeses are vegetarian, except for their sliced American cheese, but that’s gross anyways.
Hard cheeses are rarely vegetarian. I’m not sure why this is. Italians law prohibits calling cheese Parmesan if it does not use calf rennet, so no Parmesan is vegetarian. Yet Whole Foods-brand Parmesan is vegetarian. I’m not sure how they get away with this.
Up until writing this post I had been under the impression that Kosher cheese is vegetarian, since dairy and meat cannot mix for people who keep Kosher. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, which cites this post by a rabbi, animal rennet is not classified as meat. Sad.
British cheese tends to be vegetarian. I noticed this anecdotally, and the British Cheese Board confirms that nearly all British cheese makers use a non-animal rennt agent. I’m not sure why this is.
Haloumi cheese is vegetarian. This is nice for fellow vegetarians who travel in Africa, as Lebanese supermarkets frequently sell Haloumi cheese!
What is your favorite vegetarian cheese, Shelby?