Wondering if cheese is vegetarian? This guest post comes from a long-time vegetarian who didn't realize the role that the dairy industry plays in causing animal suffering. Here's what she learned about eating cheese and her statement on whether or not cheese is vegetarian. I understand, since I too, was a long-time vegetarian who didn't realize that I really needed to be vegan to reduce my impact on animal cruelty.
Is Cheese Vegetarian?
There is a lot of confusion, by design of the dairy industry, over whether or not eating cheese is vegetarian or not. I was one of those confused parties who used to enjoy cheese almost daily while thinking they were made from milk and allowing me to call myself lactovegetarian.
See also: Is milk vegetarian?
Not until my trainer, who is vegan, told me to Google "enzymes Parmesan cheese", did I learn a horrid fact: Most cheese is made from coagulating milk to produce curds (solids) and whey (liquid). The coagulation of milk is achieved by the addition of rennet, the active ingredient of which is the enzyme chymosin (also known as rennin). The source of rennet is the stomach of slaughtered newly-born calves. There are alternatives to using animal based rennet, by using plant based or GMO-based rennet, but the standard and traditional way is to use animal based rennet. The enzyme used in cheese is apparently better the younger the calf, and some cheeses would never consider using plant based rennet, especially not Parmesan cheese or Grana Padano or Gorgonzola. Thus, these cheeses are never vegetarian, since they always contain calf stomach rennet.
The only country in the world that requires their cheeses be labeled and showing the source of the rennet is the U.K. where the majority of cheeses are used using plant based (fungi or mushroom) rennet. So, in the United States and most of the world, most cheeses are not vegetarian, while in the UK, you can easily check the label to see.
Are Any Cheeses Vegetarian, Then?
Paneer, an Indian cheese, is made without any kind of rennet, as is ricotta cheese. Curiously enough, some cheaper and lower end cheeses use more plant based rennet now, not to be humane but to save money. I would actually support them more than the ones using animal based rennet. Not only cow milk cheeses use their babies' stomachs but also goat and sheep cheeses.
So If I Eat Cheese, Am I Still Vegetarian?
As a vegetarian, I was shocked to learn this and had to rescind that I was in no way actually a vegetarian if I was eating cheese containing calf stomach. I have since totally switched over to being a vegan as I do not want to support anything that produces rennet. I have shared this fact with as many people as I can.
Can you imagine how a cow feels as she delivers her offspring just for a person to rob her of it to see what sex it is: if male - to kill then and there, or keep as veal for a few months; if female: to use for further dairy production and more baby calves to kill for rennet. My cheese-oholic friends who refuse to accept this terrible fact, being in denial, say that no way do artisan cheese makers do this. Heck yes, they just buy the rennet from a farm that specializes in this "production".
This practice is not new in cheese making, and Europeans seem to know about it, whereas Americans don't know. I just want you all to know what you eat as this may not be what you thought you were eating and supporting the practice of. I would suggest a movement to have all cheeses labeled if they are using animal based rennet or plant based. In the U.K. the vegetarian cheeses have a "V" on them and their ingredients specified. If you see "enzyme" you can assume it is animal based and code for rennet. A similar system should be adopted by the United States to protect consumers and inform them of what they're really eating and supporting.
Consuming slaughtered newborn calf stomach enzymes is not vegetarian.
So, What's a Vegetarian to Do?
There are a couple of alternatives to any kind of cheese flavors such as nutritional yeast and vegan parmesan cheeses made from walnuts (Parma is one brand. Don't ask me how they could use that name...since that is the capital for making Parmesan cheese in Italy). I am not endorsed by any company, just speaking up for newborn animals.
A very popular product on the market now is the whey craze. Whey marketers are targeting vegetarians and athletes on their hunt for protein. Please note, whey is a by-product from cheese production using rennet. Whey is the watery stuff that is left out of the cheese cloth. They powderize that and just discuss its health benefits, but if you are a vegetarian consuming whey, you are a full blown animal eater. Sorry to tell the truth. Whey is also found in cookies, chocolate and on and on so please read food labels carefully, now knowing what to look out for.
In short, the best, and the only way, to ensure that your diet is not contributing to animal cruelty at all is to adopt a fully vegan diet - egg-free and dairy-free.