Parmesan Cheese is Not Vegetarian!

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This is one of the harder lessons I learned at last weekend’s “Fast and Delicious” cooking course at Rachel Demuth’s vegetarian cookery school in Bath, England. The class was fabulous. Most lessons were delicious, some surprising, others a bit disappointing, like this fact about Parmesan cheese:

Italian Parmesan has to use animal rennet under statute, making it not suitable for vegetarians.

Bummer, because Parmesan is one of my favorite cheeses!

Vegetarian "Parmesan"HOWEVER, there are vegetarian “Italian-style” hard cheeses that make a pretty good substitute for Parmesan. Lots of people, including Ms. Demuth, recommend Twineham George’s “Italian Style Hard Cheese”. According to vegetarian.co.uk:


Twineham Grange, who are based in Sussex, have been making this cheese for the past 15 years. They use the same traditional methods as the Italian cheese makers, the only difference is that they use English milk which is higher in protein and butterfat. It is also a good source of zinc and calcium. In blind tests even the judges were unable to tell the difference.



Today at Whole Paycheck I found some some made-in-Italy vegetarian hard cheese by a company called Soster who has a really charming low-fi website. The cheese wasn’t as hard as Parmesan but it had that nice salty flavor and grated well over my grilled tofu and pasta sauce meal.

More to come from my cooking extravaganza. There were way better lessons than this!

22 thoughts on “Parmesan Cheese is Not Vegetarian!

  1. Evita

    Hi Monica

    I am so surprised and actually confused that this is what you were told, as vegetarians can and most normally eat animal products, it just depends what type of vegetarian one is. Otherwise you are a vegan. Some vegetarians I guess like yourself eat cheese, which is an animal product regardless of what rennet is used.

    Parmesan cheese or any cheese is not suitable for vegans, but I do not see any problems with it for vegetarians.

    So I am so confused by this, unless in the UK vegans are referred to as vegetarians? But then they wouldn’t be eating cheese.

    Can you clarify?

    Reply
  2. Mom

    Monica… I guess I’m not really sure what “animal rennet” is? To me that will be the key, whether I continue to eat parmesan cheese or not! In other words, does it fall into the butter, egg, dairy category?

    Reply
    1. Wendy

      Animal rennet is made from the lining of the stomach from a suckling calf. You cannot call yourself a vegetarian if you eat anything which causes the death of an animal.

      Reply
  3. monica

    Hi Evita, thanks for the comment and you bring up an excellent point. I guess it boils down to definition. A “vegetarian” is someone who doesn’t eat meat. So what qualifies as “meat”? I guess that depends on the vegetarian, but for many veggies, this means not eating any product that an animal had to die for. This is where the problem with animal rennet comes in.

    Rennet is an enzyme that coagulates cow milk and turns it into cheese. The usual source of rennet is the stomach of slaughtered newly-born calves (!!!). Frankly, I doesn’t think this falls into the egg / dairy category.

    I HOPE this clears things up for everyone!

    Reply
  4. Sagan

    Thanks for the clarification of rennet- I found this all really interesting. It’s neat how there are different types of vegetarianism and all that. I wasn’t aware that Parmesan cheese contains animal rennet! So much to learn.

    Reply
  5. Matt

    I just found out about this issue, and found your site via Google search. You say that “Italian-style hard cheese” often doesn’t contain rennet. Does this include the dozens of domestic or imported “Parmesan” cheeses sold in the United States, since they obviously aren’t Parmigiano-Reggiano and subject to the same statutes?

    Reply
  6. Sam Webster

    Hi, please no that NO italian hard cheeses are vegetarian, no matter what kind of pseudo-vegetarian you are. Yes all cheese is animal product, but for animal rennet you actually have to kill the animal to get it out, so anything using animal rennet is not vegetarian!

    More the point, Parmesan or Romano or any italian hard cheeses are made with an enzyme called Lipase, for which there is *NO* vegetarian “version” – you have to kill the animal to get the lipase enzyme, end of story. Very sad since these were my favourite kind of cheeses :(

    Reply
  7. Sam Webster

    Just to add to my last comment, I thought I would add that if you read about it, there are non-animal sources of Lipase, but in my search of vege parmesan I’ve had extensive conversation with many cheesemakers, and they said the non-animal Lipase’s give a very different flavour to animal once, and thus they don’t use them (despite what wikipedia might say :\).

    Reply
  8. Monica Shaw

    Sam, thanks for the info. These were my favorite kind of cheeses, too. =/ All the more reason to learn to make your own cheese, as I’ve recently been inspired to do by my latest read: Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Mark Bittman also explains how to make cheese in “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” It’s not exactly parmesan, but it’s tasty, healthy and rennet free!

    Reply
  9. Zoe

    I've been a vegetarian for nearly eighteen years- since I was four. People always asked me if it was difficult for me- my answer was always never. I love animals way too much to have them slaughtered for my culinary advantage- we aren't cave people, it is not the only way to "survive". In fact, us vegetarians live 7-10 years longer than meat eaters, studies have shown. I just did not eat meat- I thought it was that simple.

    However, in the last year being a vegetarian has gotten far more complicated. I only then, after being "vegetarian" for almost my entire life found out about rennet, lipase and pepsin used in cheese. That gelatin was in yoghurt and marshmellows and many other things. Ingredient lists are confusing and have different names for ingredients to disguise the disgusting things they really are. My cheesies and doritos even contain animal ingredients! I was so upset by my findings, about how all these years I thought I was such a devoted vegetarian I had been consuming animal this whole time.

    I felt wronged by companies and naive to have thought my products were "clean". I blamed myself for being a "bad" vegetarian and felt so wronged and deceived. Now, it IS difficult being vegetarian. That does not change my beliefs, I would never start eating meat because it was too difficult…. now I just have to work harder at it, research ingredient names online and annoy servers at restaurants to check ingredients for me. I beat myself up over my recent findings and blamed myself, but I have come to realize it is a learning process. I should not blame myself- I should blame society for not clearly marking their products, for not catering to a lifestyle that is ever growing in popularity. Allergy information is clearly listed- would it be too much to ask for products to have a "Vegetarian Suitable" stamped on it? Because I am allergic- to cruelty! Allergic to the DECOMPOSING FLESH OF A CARCASS THAT WAS ONCE AN INNOCENT LIVING BEING. People can call me a hippie- I don't think there is anything to sneer at for trying to do our part in sticking up for those that were not blessed to have been born on the top of the food chain.

    Then there is animal testing- it is near impossible to find a good bathroom cleaner or mascara that has not been tested on animals! Living a cruelty-free lifestyle is so much more difficult that it seems. I'm sorry this was so long, my point is that you should all pat yourselves on the back for doing your part- and don't beat yourselves up if you find out you have eaten something bad without knowing. All you can do is your best- 17 years and I did not know these basic things! Keep fighting the good fight and let's put the pressure on major corporations to wake up and cater to us- you don't have to make something vegetarian but at least CLEARLY mark your products so those of us with a heart can NOT eat them! Thanks and that is all!

    Reply
  10. Charis_P

    Monica,

    The realities of how dairy and eggs are produced by the overwhelming majority of "farms" makes any distinction between parmesan and the eggs/dairy category arbitrary and superficial.

    Lots of chickens and cows have to die to produce the eggs and dairy you eat. This is especially true if you buy cheap eggs and dairy produced by CAFO's/factory farms but still holds true to a certain extent if you consume pasture raised eggs and organic dairy products that come from most free range layers and organic dairy cows. Further, factory farmed layers and dairy cows, and even most organic dairy cows not only had to die for your eggs and dairy, but they had to suffer immensely for it.

    There is no meaningful difference between eating a cheese that uses enzymes from an animal that was going to be slaughtered for its meat anyway, and eating cheese from cow that is abused its whole life to produce the milk for that cheese, and is then shipped off to a CAFO and then a slaughterhouse once it has been used up by the dairy farm. Vegetarians who eat other dairy products and make this kind of a distinction are just kidding themselves.

    Reply
  11. Paul

    Hi Evita,

    The Vegetarian Society (founded 1847) defines a vegetarian as: "Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish* or by-products of slaughter."

    There are three sub-types of vegetarian:

    Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet (usually just referred to as "vegetarian")

    Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.

    Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.

    Hope this helps!

    Cheers,

    Paul

    PS the presence of parmesan on just about every restaurant dish being presented as the vegetarian option drives me crazy! Chefs need to be educated about this. (Also, not every dish has to involve butternut squash or be a risotto, aggghhhhh!)

    ;-)

    Reply
  12. Dagmar

    The Vegetarian Society can define the term as it pleases but it doesn't own the word, concept or philosophy of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism predates it by over two and a half millennia.

    As Charis points out, if you understand how our food production system works in general, from a philosophical point of view it makes no meaningful difference to distinguish animal byproducts from slaughter from animal byproducts from animals that can only be obtained from a system where they inevitably are going to be slaughtered for their meat and byproducts anyway. A vegetarian who consumes any animal products still supports the suffering and slaughtering of livestock.

    In addition, as Zoe points out, that list of byproducts goes far beyond parmesan cheese and includes many things that some vegetarians consume including sugars that are whitened with bone char, gelatin, which is derived from the collagen inside animals' skin, bones and connective tissue, and apple juice/alcohol clarified with gelatin or crushed shellfish and sturgeon.

    Even most vegans support the livestock industry if they consume organic produce which are grown using manure as an input for fertilizer. All that manure is only made possible because of the livestock industry and it is a practical impossibility for most vegans to live off of only produce they grow or are grown from the limited number of commercial vegan farms that grow produce using fertilizer that does not contain manure.

    If anyone wants to get a better understanding of the various philosophies of ethics upon which concepts of vegetarianism and veganism are based they should read the writings of people like Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Gary Francione and then draw their own informed opinions about what kind of vegetarianism they wish to practice and how radical a change in lifestyle they are willing to undergo to do so.

    Reply
  13. Joe Mc Cormack

    We are not vegetarians, however, my wife cannot take any cheese which is made with animal rennet, but cheese made with non-animal rennet is OK.

    Regarding Parmesan cheese, we had been able to buy one in Tesco's, called Vegitani, or similar, but we havn't seen it for over a year now

    Sainsbury's had 'Italian Hard Cheese' available in their Basics range, but lately is now only available in a pre-grated tub, which doesn't have the same taste.

    On the subject of animal rennet, most cheeses available now are using non-animal rennet, e.g. Cheddar, emmental, halloumi, etc however, the info is usually tiny, or at least difficult to find, as the general public seem to think that cheese labeled as 'Vegetarian' is not real cheese, or is made from tofu or quorn.

    A point of interest is that since my wife was able to identify a variety of foods which should be avoided, including beef, pork and dairy, except 'vegitarian; cheese, our health has improved to a significant extent.

    I am now inclined towards 'Vegan' as being the diet to aim for.

    Reply
  14. Joe Mc Cormack

    We are not vegetarians, however, my wife cannot take any cheese which is made with animal rennet, but cheese made with non-animal rennet is OK.

    Regarding Parmesan cheese, we had been able to buy one in Tesco's, called Vegitani, or similar, but we havn't seen it for over a year now

    Sainsbury's had 'Italian Hard Cheese' available in their Basics range, but lately is now only available in a pre-grated tub, which doesn't have the same taste.

    On the subject of animal rennet, most cheeses available now are using non-animal rennet, e.g. Cheddar, emmental, halloumi, etc however, the info is usually tiny, or at least difficult to find, as the general public seem to think that cheese labeled as 'Vegetarian' is not real cheese, or is made from tofu or quorn.

    A point of interest is that since my wife was able to identify a variety of foods which should be avoided, including beef, pork and dairy, except 'vegetarian; cheese, our health has improved to a significant extent.

    I am now inclined towards 'Vegan' as being the diet to aim for.

    Reply
  15. Jules

    If you are eating parmesan cheese in the United States, it is suitable for lacto-vegetarians, because it does not use animal rennet but microbial rennet. In Europe it is not. Hope this clarifies the issue.

    Reply
  16. reba

    rennet is made from the inner lining of a goat or calfs second stomach. thats what animal rennet is look it up in a dictionary.

    Reply
  17. Sean

    You had me scared for a moment! I did some research…I called the Kraft consumer hotline. The nice lady who answered my concern about rennet told me Kraft cheese does not contain animal rennet. It contains microbial rennet which is safe for vegetarians! Phew…for a while there I thought I was eating baby cows for lunch…

    Reply
    1. Monica Post author

      I’m not sure that Kraft’s “parmesan” really counts as “parmesan” or “cheese”. But if it works for you then great!

      Reply

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