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Why Parmesan Isn’t Always Vegetarian Friendly

is parmesan vegetarian
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – PdPhotos

Is parmesan cheese vegetarian? The short answer is, no. We’ll tell you exactly why not, and take a look at what plant-based alternatives are available.

Everyone knows that parmesan cheese isn’t for vegans. Dairy products have no place in an exclusively plant-based diet, and the main ingredient in all cheese is milk. But it might be less obvious that parmesan isn’t even vegetarian. The same goes for other similar types of hard cheeses, like Gran Padano.

Note: Names matter. In the United States, “parmesan” is used to refer to cheese that is inspired by and similar to the Italian “King of Cheeses” Parmigiano-Reggiano. The production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is closely controlled, and a certain set of very strict criteria in the production process must be met in order for products to bear that name. In Europe, however, it is not allowed to use the word “parmesan” to refer to anything other than the real thing. 

Why Parmesan Is Not Vegetarian

parmesan cheese
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is not suitable for vegetarians. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – Broesis)

Because of the way parmesan cheese is produced, it is not suitable for a vegetarian diet. Why?

  • Like many other types of hard cheeses, traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano is made with calf rennet, an extracted form of the enzyme chymosin, which separates milk into solid curds and liquid whey. This substance is taken from the mucous membrane of the fourth stomach chamber of young calves that are still nursing.  
  • To extract the chymosin, the stomachs must be submerged in a solution. For this reason, it is not possible to extract it without killing the animal, which means that anything made with rennet is immediately disqualified from a strictly vegetarian diet. 
  • The stomachs used for rennet production are by-products of the meat industry. While it’s true that animals are not killed specifically for the enzyme alone, purchasing food products made with rennet still indirectly supports the meat industry. 

Parmesan Alternatives for Vegetarians

is parmesan cheese vegetarian
There are three main alternatives to rennet. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – Ulleo)

If you are a vegetarian who simply can’t live without parmesan, you do have some options.

In the 1960s and 70s, animal rights movements began to gain momentum, and as a result, the veal industry began to take a nosedive. Because calf rennet comes from the stomachs of calves that are slaughtered for veal, the enzyme suddenly became very expensive. Companies needed a cheaper and more readily available alternative. 

There are currently three main alternatives available to cheesemakers:

Fermentation Produced Chymosin (FPC): Modern science answered the call for a rennet alternative with recombinant animal gene technology. Fungus molds were genetically modified with the gene for chymosin (the main component of rennet), causing the fungus to churn out new chymosin molecules. Rennet production through microorganisms occurs by process of fermentation, and does not require the slaughtering of any animals. But, strictly speaking, there is one problem. The gene that is used to modify the microorganisms in the first place comes from animal rennet. Since this one single gene can be used to produce a massive amount of microbial rennet for years and years, many vegetarians find eating cheese made with FPC acceptable. In 2012, enzyme companies and dairy groups estimated that about 90 percent of all commercially produced cheese in the USA is made with FPC.

Microbial Rennet: Microbial rennets are non-animal coagulants produced by a fungus. The advantage is that they are completely plant-based, but the disadvantage is that cheese produced with this kind of rennet often yields unpredictable results and off-flavors. 

Vegetable Coagulant: Different coagulants can also be extracted from certain plants, like artichokes, cardoons, and fig trees. Cheeses made with vegetable coagulants tend to be less firm and can be quite bitter. 

Is my Favorite Parmesan Cheese Vegetarian? How to Find Out

parmesan cheese label
Finding out whether a cheese is vegetarian or not can be tricky. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – QuinnTheIslander)
  • Unfortunately, cheesemakers are not required to list rennet as an ingredient in their products. Often the packaging will only show that the product contains “enzymes”, but not which one in particular or how it was produced.
  • Look for a ‘V’ or “suitable for vegetarians” on the labeling. Companies that make vegetarian-friendly cheese will often clearly specify that their cheeses are made without rennet, especially if you shop in an organic supermarket. 
  • When in doubt, check Vegetatio’s 2020 list of vegetarian cheeses and brands to find out whether or not a product has made the cut.
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