I have been a number of things in my life, but arguably the most enduring personality trait I possess is a love of cheese. Specifically, Parmesan. When I’m in an Italian restaurant where the waiter has to grate the cheese over my plate, it’s not a matter of “say when” it’s a matter of “when you run out of cheese to grate.” In addition to my cheese obsession, I was also a vegetarian for a number of years. That’s why it upset me to learn that Parmesan, the queen of cheese, is not, in fact, vegetarian at all.
First things first, let’s get some facts straight: “Vegetarian” means no meat, fish, crustaceans—anything with eyes, basically. “Vegan” means no animal products whatsoever, which includes dairy, eggs, gelatin and anything else that comes from an animal.
Cheese as a whole is typically vegetarian—it’s made from milk, which is an animal byproduct, not an actual part of an animal. But, it turns out, Parmesan and some other cheeses, contain non-vegetarian rennet, which comes from the lining of a cow’s stomach. This rennet is what allows the cheese to coagulate and turn from milk into salty, silky cheese.
Many cheese producers nowadays use vegetable or microbial rennet for a number of reasons. It’s less expensive, easier to get and mostly foolproof. But in order to designate a cheese Parmigiano Reggiano (this is important, and it’s for the same reasons that Parma ham is only from the Parma region of Italy), it has to include cow rennet.
If you’re a vegetarian, you should also know the other cheeses that contain cow rennet. They include manchego, gruyère, Pecorino Romano, gorgonzola, Emmenthaler and a number of others.
So vegetarians, make sure to check the label of your cheese! Manufacturers are not required to disclose what kind of rennet they use, but some do. When in doubt, go without.
And to all vegetarians: We’re sorry to deliver this devastating news.