Vegetarian rennet is a non-animal product used to make vegetarian cheeses to aid in the coagulation process. Some cheeses are made using rennet, which is derived from a calves' stomach, but vegetarian options are available.
What Is Rennet?
Before discussing vegetarian rennet, it's important to look at what rennet is and why vegetarians should avoid products made with this ingredient. Rennet is the ingredient used to make cheese coagulate. This sounds harmless, but it's not. The primary enzyme (chymosin) in rennet is collected from the lining of the fourth stomach of a newborn calf. The enzyme is produced there to help baby cows digest milk. Piglets are a secondary source of rennet, which also use the enzyme in the digestion process. The need for a vegetarian option for this enzyme is obvious. In addition, animal rennet is quite expensive and is becoming difficult to find, especially since animal rights activities have objected to practices in the veal industry.
How Vegetarian Rennet Is Made
Vegetarian rennet serves the same purpose as "regular" rennet, to coagulate proteins in milk to make vegetarian cheeses. The difference is that vegetarian rennet is vegetable or microbial in origin.
Enzymes collected from vegetable sources are harvested from plants to make vegetable rennet. This is a true vegetarian rennet. These plants include:
- Fig leaves
- Wild thistles
To make microbial rennet, enzymes are collected from fungi or bacteria and are then fermented. Unfortunately, this type of rennet can leave a bitter aftertaste, so is usually only used when making cheeses that are not aged long. This type of rennet is also truly vegetarian.
Genetically Engineered Rennet
The third type of rennet used that is considered vegetarian is called Fermentation Produced Chymosin (FPC). This product is made by taking a gene out of a calves' DNA, then putting it into the DNA of yeast, mold, or bacteria. That means FPC is a GMO product. Most cheese in the United States is made with this type of rennet. This type of rennet was approved for use in cheese by the FDA in 1990.
It's important to note that in many 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. The type of rennet used to make the cheese will almost never appear on the label.
What You May Not Know
The real kicker is that you may be eating vegetarian cheese that uses the FPC vegetarian rennet that uses DNA from the calf's stomach cells. Most of the enzyme is filtered out in the whey, but for most vegetarians this 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. Unless you contact the manufacturer and ask what type of rennet is used in their cheeses, it's almost impossible to know. Most labels just state "enzymes" in the ingredient list, which, according to the FDA, can mean animal, vegetable, or microbial rennet. The exact wording for the definition of clotting enzymes on most cheese labels is" Rennet and/or other clotting enzymes of animal, plant, or microbial origin."
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. Alternatively, look for only vegan forms of cheese.
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. Most of the cheeses in their stores are labeled so you know the type of rennet used. Their line of vegetarian products include vegetarian and vegan options like:
- Soy Cheese: This cheese is made from soy milk, with a flavor and consistency close to natural cheese.
- Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese: This product has a delicate flavor and nice mouth feel similar to real cream cheese.
- Vegan Mozzarella: This substitute melts beautifully on pizza, but you can't microwave or freeze it.
- Vegan Cream Cheese: The taste of this cream cheese is very close to the real thing.
- Mozzarella-Style Shreds: Made with almond milk, this cheese melts just like mozzarella.
For a complete list of their products and locations visit their website.
Whole Foods has a wonderful cheese department. Most of the cheeses they sell are organic. Their website does state that the cheese they sell can be made from all four types of rennet, including animal rennet. You'll have to ask or read the label carefully to find out if the cheese you are interested in is vegetarian; it will have a corresponding label. Many of their labels will whether rennet is vegetarian or traditional.
- Kite Hill Cheese: This vegan cheese comes in several flavors and is soft with a great texture.
- 365 Brand Cheeses: The labels on these cheeses will state, vegetarian or traditional rennet. All varieties are available, from cheddar to cream cheese.
- String Cheese: All kids love string cheese, and Whole Foods has a wonderful type of this fun snack product.
- Vermont Creamery: These excellent cheeses are made using sustainable agriculture. All varieties are vegetarian.
This nationwide chain has a lot of options for vegetarian and vegan cheeses. As always, read the label carefully or ask a salesperson if the cheese you want to buy uses animal or vegetarian rennet. You can find all available cheeses at their website.
- Treeline Treenut Cheese: These vegan cheeses are now offered at Kroger stores. The artisanal cheeses are made from cashew milk and only use vegetarian rennet.
- Laughing Cow: These snack cheeses are made with vegetarian rennet. Spreadable cheese wedges come in all flavors from Swiss to pepper jack.
- Tillamook: Many types of this cheese brand use vegetarian rennet, including cheddar, colby, provolone, muenster, and Swiss.
- Applegate: All varieties of cheese under this line use vegetarian rennet except their havarti cheese. The label on their havarti states, "enzymes," while all other varieties state, "enzymes - non animal."
Soy Cheese Alternatives
Soy cheeses offer a number of alternatives for the vegetarian menu. Here are a few:
- Better than Cream Cheese: This creamy spreadable fresh cheese is close to real 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:
- Mozzarella, a good melting cheese
- Yellow American, which is great for grilled cheese sandwiches
- Pepper jack, delicious in burritos and enchiladas
- Swiss, a classic cheese with a mildly tart flavor
- Provolone, another great melting cheese
- Cheddar, the classic cheese for grating in casseroles eating out of hand
- 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 by-product. 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.