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Many cheeses are not Vegetarian!

I have simplified this article to share this information about non-vegetarian cheeses.


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 States.

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 enzymes.

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. 


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.

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