Is Parmesan Cheese Vegetarian?
Author: Nate from Vegetatio
Wait, what? Parmesan cheese is... not vegetarian?
At this point you're probably thinking that your understanding was that all cheese was vegetarian. Unfortunately, cheese makers have a hidden secret that they don't really like talking about.
Without going into the topic at all, here is a list of many cheese brands and whether or not they are vegetarian. It doesn't have all brands listed, but I can tell you that Kraft parmesan cheese (at least in the U.S.) has come out and said that their cheese is vegetarian-friendly.
Okay, now for the details.
The Secret Ingredient That Makes Parmesan Not Vegetarian
In the cheese coagulation process (the step of cheese-making where it turns into curds) there is an ingredient called "rennet" which is, essentially, cow intestine. Rennet contains an enzyme called chymosin, which is what allows cheese to curdle. In order for rennet to be obtained, a baby calf must be killed. Therefore, parmesan cheese is not vegetarian. However, not all cheese manufacturers use animal rennet in the coagulation process.
So... Is ALL Parmesan Not Vegetarian?
Actually, there are exceptions! It depends both on where you live and what rennet the manufacturer uses.
If you live in Europe, then all cheese that is labeled "Parmigiano-Reggiano" is, by law, not vegetarian. The European Union requires that in order for cheese makers to call their product by the above name, they must use the calf rennet as opposed to the microbial rennet. "Parmigiano-Reggiano" is a protected term for countries of the EU. However, Europe is still home to some vegetarian parmesan mimics, they are just called a different name. Look for "Italian hard cheese" or similar titles.
In the U.S., rennet, while sometimes obtained from calves, can also be obtained from several types of fungus. Many parmesan cheese brands elect to use the fungus rennet, also known as "microbial rennet," instead of using the rennet from the calf intestine. Sometimes, this information is not displayed apparently on the nutritional information label, so be sure to double check with the manufacturer directly if you have any doubts. Any cheese that doubles as parmesan/romano may not be vegetarian-friendly, even if the non-romano version is.
Many vegetarians like to live by the guideline of "if it doesn't say 'microbial/vegetable rennet', then it's probably made using animal rennet." Again, please consult the mega awesome cheese rennet awareness guide. If you can't find your brand on the list, feel free to contact manufacturers or do some googling to see if anyone else already has.
Vegetarian-Friendly Parmesan Options and Alternatives
Before compiling this list, extensive research was done to make sure that these parmesan cheeses were, indeed, vegetarian friendly:
So there are some options that you can buy online, but if you're the adventurous sort, there are also recipes you can give a whirl:
There are other recipes out there, but almost all of them are just like the one above. Also, Minimalist Baker is awesome.
There are some other, simple alternatives to parmesan cheese. There are two methods, both vegan-friendly:
Nutritional Yeast Flakes
Note: Most nutritional yeast contains vitamin B12, an essential nutrient that is almost exclusively in meat. So, it's actually a double-whammy for vegetarians.
So now you have some history, explanation, and other options/alternatives in the vegetarian parmesan dilemma. All hope is not lost. The cheesy, salty, nutty flavor of the parmesan cheese can be supplemented. Just be careful to check those ingredients!
What type of food site would we be without some supplemental recipes for you to try out:
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