Eaters of all persuasions can usually find an excuse to eat cheese, but the dairy product is especially important for vegetarians. Because they don’t eat meat, they must turn to alternative foods like cheese, beans, nuts and soy to ensure they are getting enough protein and nutrients in their diet.
While cheese is a common staple in the vegetarian kitchen, some may not realise that not all cheeses are vegetarian-friendly. How can this be? Many cheeses are traditionally made with animal rennet, an enzyme that comes from the stomachs of slaughtered calves, lambs or pigs. Rennet is a crucial ingredient in most commercial cheese making, as it is the specific substance that coagulates liquid milk, separating it into curds and whey.
The good news is there are several delicious options for vegetarians who want to avoid animal rennet and continue eating cheese. First of all, several smaller cheese producers and artisans are now making vegetarian cheeses with vegetable or microbial “rennets” of non-animal origin. Vegetable rennet comes from certain plants that also contain enzymes capable of curdling milk. These include plants of thistle, mallow, fig and melon. Microbial rennets, however, are becoming increasingly more popular. These enzymes are derived from the growth of pure cultures and molds like Mucor miehei, Bacillus subtilis or Bacillus prodigiosum. There is absolutely no difference in taste between cheeses made with traditional animal rennet and vegetable or microbial rennets.
Secondly, advances in genetic engineering techniques have also made it possible for cheese makers to coagulate milk without animal rennet. They can use genetically engineered microorganisms known as chymosin. These microorganisms are created by extracting genetic material from calf stomach cells and using it as a template to produce chymosin with “copycat” DNA. This means the actual calf cells are not used in the cheese making process. It is also possible to bio-synthesize chymosin in a laboratory without the use of calf cells at all. Though animals are not involved in the day-to-day production of chymosin, very strict vegetarians may still wish to avoid it.
A third sure-fire way to ensure you’re getting a vegetarian cheese is to choose a soy cheese or cheese alternative. Made with soy or rice instead of cow or goat’s milk, you’ll find varieties in popular cheese flavors such as mozzarella, cheddar and Gouda. True cheese lovers be forewarned though, some of these cheeses are a bit grainy in texture which means they won’t eat or melt as smoothly as the real thing. They can also be a difficult to find – check natural food stores or the health food section of larger supermarkets.
Look for Labeling
Thanks to consumer demand, vegetarian cheeses are becoming more widely available at supermarkets and health food stores. Many cheeses are clearly labeled with a “V” sign if they are indeed “suitable for vegetarians.” But as with the other foods in a vegetarian diet, it’s always important to read labels and ask questions. Most companies using rennet alternatives will specifically list “vegetable rennet” or “vegetable enzymes” in their ingredients. And watch out for those that list “rennet,” “rennase,” “enzymes,” “chymosin” or “pepsin.” When in doubt, ask your cheese shop or contact the manufacturer directly. And always enjoy your cheese with peace of mind.