Vegetarian rennet is a non-animal product used in the making of vegetarian cheeses to aid in the coagulation process.
What Is Rennet?
Before we talk about vegetarian rennet, let's take a look at what rennet is and why vegetarians should avoid products made with it. Rennet is the ingredient used to make cheese coagulate quicker. It sounds harmless enough, but it's not. The problem lies in the fact that the primary enzyme (chymosin ) found in rennet is most often collected from the lining of the fourth stomach of a newborn calf where the enzyme is produced to help baby cows digest milk. A secondary source of rennet is piglets, which also use the enzyme in the digestion process. With that said, you can see the need for a vegetarian option.
How Vegetarian Rennet Is Made
As stated above, vegetarian rennet serves the same purpose as "regular" rennet, to aid coagulation in the making of vegetarian cheeses. The difference is that the two main sources from which vegetarian rennet comes are vegetable or microbial in origin.
Enzymes collected from vegetable sources are harvested from plants in the making of vegetable rennet. These plants include:
- Fig leaves
- Wild thistles
In the case of microbial rennet, the enzymes most often come from fungi or bacteria and are then fermented.
Genetically Engineered Rennet
It's important to note that in some cases the enzymes labeled vegetarian rennet are manufactured by using genetically altered rennet. In this case, the chymosin DNA is taken from a calf's stomach cells and altered. However, this is not always the case with manufactured enzymes. They can also be bio-synthesized without the cells of an animal. The key is to check with the manufacturer to know what brands are safe to buy.
What You May Not Know
The real kicker is that you may be eating vegetarian cheese that uses vegetarian rennet manufactured with genetically altered rennet that still uses DNA from the calf's stomach cells. This manufactured rennet is not widely used, but for most vegetarians it makes a difference, and it's worth a little research. You want to know the source of the rennet used in the cheese you're eating. The problem is that in the U.S., the labels don't really explain the vegetarian rennet source. The best solution is to buy vegetarian cheese through markets that understand the difference and are willing to disclose the source of the vegetarian rennet.
Trader Joes is known for its large selection of healthy foods. Its vegetarian line does not contain ingredients or sub-ingredients that come from animal, meat, poultry or fish. Their line of vegetarian products include vegetarian options like:
- Grated Parmesan and Romano Cheese
- Soy Cheese
- Toffuti Better Than Cream Cheese
- Cheesecake Bites
- New York Deli Style Baked Cheesecake
- Jalapeno Cheese Crunchies
For a complete list of their products and locations visit their website.
Soy Cheese Alternatives
Soy cheeses offer a number of alternatives for the vegetarian menu. Here are a few:
- Better than Cream Cheese
- Follow Your Heart - a soy-based: casein-free Vegan Gourmet Cheese Alternative available in a number of flavors
- Galaxy Nutritional Foods - offers a wide selection of vegetarian cheese flavors including:
- Yellow American
- Pepper Jack
- Soya Kaas - another favorite of many vegetarians is available in a variety of flavors and even a couple of fat-free versions
The Bottom Line
As with many vegetarian topics, the use of rennet in making cheese stirs up controversy because it is an animal biproduct. If you are a strict vegetarian, it is wise to contact the manufacturer to find out what type of vegetarian rennet they use in making their vegetarian cheese.