A vegetarian diet eliminates meat and fish while consuming animal products, like dairy, cheese, eggs, and honey. But not all cheese is made the same - some are safe for vegetarian consumption, and some are most definitely not.
The taste of cheese is close to experiencing heaven on earth, with countless varieties from salty feta and sharp, old cheddar to decadent, soft brie and camembert.
Vegetarians follow a diet that removes all animal flesh and eggs, but dairy is still fair game, and many Lacto-vegetarians enjoy eating cheese as part of their regular diet.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, on the other hand, will avoid animal flesh, but do allow eggs and dairy.
Many vegetarians unknowingly consume animal products in cheese, as it's a lesser-known fact that some cheese-making processes require the use of an animal byproduct, rennet.
We're here to give you the lowdown on rennet cheese and the difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian cheese.
Is cheese vegetarian?
For the most part, cheese produced in America is not vegetarian. Cheese production involves using an enzyme to separate milk and create solid cheese curds, but the enzyme often comes from the lining of animals' stomachs.
Some cheeses naturally have no rennet used in their production, so they're safe for vegetarian use. Let's dig deeper into the use of rennet in the production of some cheeses.
What is animal rennet?
Animal rennet is a combination of enzymes contained in the lining of an animal's stomach. The enzyme ratio is approximately 90% chymosin and 10% pepsin and lipase. These enzymes work as a team to curdle the milk protein casein, which thickens the milk into cheese curds.
Where does rennet come from?
Animal-based rennet can come from sheep, goats, or pigs. However, rennet is most often used from the stomach lining of calves.
Cheeses can be made with plant-based rennet instead, making them vegetarian diet-friendly. Most vegetarian rennet comes from fungi, cardoon thistles, artichokes, and mold microbes.
There are some pretty impressive advances in rennet-making technology; genetically engineered rennet is produced in a lab from an animal cell, which removes the animals from harm's way. This technology isn't yet being used en masse by cheese producers, but it's certainly a promising step forward.
How to tell if cheese is vegetarian safe
The best way to determine if cheese is made using animal products is by closely reading your labels. The wording around rennet can be a little vague, and rennet's use differs significantly among cheese varieties.
The label of cheese made with vegetarian enzymes will clearly specify "vegetarian rennet," "plant rennet," or "thistle rennet."
Cheeses made with animal-based rennet aren't always clearly labeled. Rennet-containing cheese labels may read "traditional rennet," "rennet," "animal enzymes," and possibly even just "enzymes." These labels aren't super-descriptive, but if a label only states enzymes, with no other indication otherwise on the packaging, you can almost guarantee it's made using animal products.
Remember, too, that Kosher cheeses are all vegetarian, so when in doubt, look for the K or OU symbol.
Vegetarian Cheese List
Here's our list of cheeses that never contain rennet, sometimes contain rennet, and those that will always contain rennet. The general rule of thumb for cheese is that hard cheeses are made with rennet, while soft cheeses are not - but there are some exceptions to the rule.
Types of vegetarian cheese
Soft cheeses don't often contain animal rennet, as they don't require enzymes and are coagulated or thickened using other ingredients.
Veggie cheeses that don't contain rennet:
- Cottage cheese
- Cream cheese
These cheeses will never contain rennet and are safe for vegetarian consumption.
But there are other substitutes that vegetarians can eat, like cashew cheese, tofu cheese and zucchini cheese.
Non-Veggie Cheese List
This is a list of cheeses that do contain rennet, and should be avoided by vegetarians.
- Grana padano
Need a bit more detail? Here you go:
Is cheddar vegetarian?
Hard cheeses like cheddar usually contain animal rennet, but in recent years many cheesemakers have started to create versions of cheddar that don't contain rennet. Usually, artisanal cheddar will be made with rennet, whereas mass-produced varieties are often vegetarian.
Is mozzarella vegetarian?
Traditional European mozzarella is usually made with animal rennet, although many modern brands make young, mild mozzarella cheese without animal rennet.
Is parmesan vegetarian?
No. Parmesan is an extra-hard cheese that requires animal rennet in its production to be considered an authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. Vegetarians should skip this cheese altogether.
Is feta vegetarian?
Some feta is vegetarian. Whether feta is made with cows', goats', or sheeps' milk, it often contains animal rennet, though some producers use microbial rennet instead.
Is blue cheese vegetarian?
Stilton blue is always vegetarian, but many other European blue cheeses like Gorgonzola still contain animal rennet. Roquefort often isn't but sometimes is vegetarian. Check your blue cheese labels carefully.
Is goats' cheese vegetarian?
French, traditional goat cheeses are made with animal rennet, while British and other modern goat cheese are almost always vegetarian.
What is vegan cheese?
One type of cheese we can guarantee is always animal rennet free is vegan cheese. Vegan cheese is safe for all vegans and vegetarians to consume, as it contains no animal products at all.
Vegan cheese is made in several different flavors and formats, from many different base ingredients. Commonly, it's made with soy, nuts, seeds, coconut milk, flour, and even root vegetables. Soaked cashews make a fantastic cheese sauce that tastes good on almost anything, from noodles to vegetables or rice.
If you're looking for convenience, you can purchase vegan cheese at the grocery store, but homemade vegan cheese almost always tastes way better. Most recipes are relatively easy to make and require just a few simple ingredients.
Here are some other fantastic vegan cheeses, suitable for a vegetarian diet.
Final notes: Rennet free cheeses
Whether or not you want to enjoy cheeses made with animal rennet is entirely up to your personal values; there isn't a simple right or wrong answer.
In summary, rennet is most often an animal-based product used in cheese to thicken milk protein casein, and turn it into harder cheese, but there are some brands that will use a plant-based rennet instead.
It’s more than likely that softer cheeses don’t contain rennet at all.
If you want to avoid consuming animal rennet, eat these cheeses instead:
- Soft cheeses like cottage, cream, and ricotta;
- Provolone, swiss, and some young mozzarellas;
- And any of the many vegan cheese brands.
Read your labels carefully for cheddar, feta, and goat cheeses, which go either way. Avoid parmesan, blue cheese, and other rennet-containing cheeses like cheddar and roquefort (unless their labels state that the rennet is plant-based).
Vegetarian and vegan cheeses can be a part of any healthy diet, so we hope this helps you find some delicious cheeses you can feel good enjoying.