WHAT'S IN YOUR
Many cheeses are not
I have simplified this article to share this
information about non-vegetarian cheeses.
WHY WOULDN'T CHEESE BE
A crucial ingredient in the production of most
commercial cheeses is an enzyme that comes from the lining of the stomach of calves, called rennet. Sometimes an
enzyme from pigs is also used. Obviously, this is of concern to vegetarians, since these are products obtained from
slaughtered animals. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 'rennet' is actually the lining of the fourth
stomach of calves and other young ruminants, but this term is also used to refer to the enzyme that is extracted
from the stomach lining for use in making cheese. 'Rennin' is another word for this enzyme, although it is less
commonly used. These enzymes are important because they are the ingredients that cause milk to coagulate and
eventually become cheese.
The following is a very informative letter we
received from the Consumer Service Department of Kraft General Foods, Inc., which clearly describes the role animal
enzymes play in the production of cheese. We are grateful to Ellen Schwarzbach of Kraft for taking the time to give
us such a thorough explanation.
"Thank you very much for asking if Kraft cheese
products contain any animal derivatives. Our comments here apply only to products produced in the United States.
Many cheese products produced in the United States do contain a coagulating enzyme derived from either beef or
swine. The process of changing fluid milk into cheese consists of coagulating the milk by one of two commonly used
methods, each resulting in cheese having distinct characteristics.
The most common method of coagulating milk is by
the use of an enzyme preparation, rennet, which traditionally was made from the stomachs of veal calves. Since the
consumption of calves for veal has not kept pace with the demand for rennet in the preparation of cheese, a
distinct shortage of this enzyme has developed. Consequently, a few years ago it became a common practice to mix
the rennet extract from calves' stomachs with a pepsin enzyme derived primarily from the stomachs of swine. These
enzymes convert the fluid milk into a semi-solid mass as one of the steps in the manufacture of cheese. This
mixture of calf rennet and pepsin extract is quite commonly and widely used within the United
A more recent development in this area has been
the use of enzymes derived from the growth of pure cultures of certain molds. These are termed microbial rennets.
They are commonly used for the production of certain types of cheese and contain no animal products. Kraft Domestic
Swiss Cheese (any Kraft Swiss not labelled "Imported" from a foreign country) is made with microbial rennet. Apart
from Kraft Domestic Swiss Cheese, it is almost impossible for us to assure you that any hard cheese product which
you might purchase from Kraft or any other American source is absolutely free of animal-derived
The other method of coagulating milk is the
result of the growth of pure cultures of bacteria in the milk and the development of lactic acid. These cheeses
have distinctly different characteristics from those produced using the coagulating enzymes. Our cream cheese
products under the PHILADELPHIA BRAND name (brick, whipped and soft varieties) and Kraft Neufchatel Cheese fall
into this category. Kraft does not use coagulating enzymes in cheese of this type, but we cannot be sure what other
manufacturers may use. Our process cheese and process cheese products are made by grinding and blending. With the
aid of heat, cheese is made by either one of the two methods of coagulating mentioned above. Therefore, it is
impossible for us to assure you that a given American-made process cheese product is free of animal-derived enzymes
including pepsin and/or rennet."
As this letter states, enzymes are now available
which are not animal derived called 'microbial enzymes'. Information obtained from Walnut Acres Company states that
microbial enzymes are 'a cultured strain of bacteria that digests protein'. It is neither animal nor vegetable but
in a class by itself. Microbial enzymes are the same as those often referred to as 'vegetable enzymes' or
'vegetable rennet'. These terms were originally used to clarify that the enzymes were not of animal origin.
Technically there is no such thing as 'vegetable rennet' since rennet, by definition, comes from animals, and so
'vegetable rennet' is a contradiction in terms.
READ THE LABEL
There is widespread use of rennet and other
animal enzymes in the production of cheese. This is especially likely to be true for the large commercial cheese
companies. Most cheese products should list the ingredients on the label. Some companies will specifically list
'rennet' or 'rennin' while others might just say 'enzymes'. Other terms to look out for include 'chymosin' and
'rennase'. For those that list 'enzymes', these are most likely animal enzymes. Even some cottage cheese and sour
cream products contain rennet. If a company is using microbial enzymes, it will probably state specifically
'vegetable enzymes' or 'vegetable rennet'.
This article was reproduced with consent from The Vegetarian
Resource Group. The original article was written by Sally Clinton.