Many people perceive cheese as vegetarian, yet the use of animal enzymes in many varieties makes it unsuitable for vegetarians and may cause an allergic reaction in alpha gals. So, before you say “yes, please” to cheese, let's peel back the rind on this dairy dilemma to help you find the best picks for your plate.
The information provided on this site is based on my personal experience living with alpha-gal syndrome. I consistently cite and link to expert sources, but nothing published on this site should be perceived as medical advice.
Alpha-gal sensitivities vary by person. You should understand your dietary restrictions, making any adjustments needed, and directing any questions to your physician.
When I was first diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome, the directive from my primary care physician was to avoid all mammalian meats, by-products, and dairy. However, two years into navigating this condition, when I first met with an allergist, she informed me that many people with alpha-gal can tolerate dairy products like skim milk and cottage cheese. Encouraged by this revelation, I reintroduced these foods into my diet under her supervision and happily experienced no adverse reactions. I gradually restored my confidence in dairy and welcomed all dairy products back into my life.
But then, an unexpected reaction occurred shortly after sharing some cheese bread with my daughter before a flight. This incident opened my eyes to a new realization: cheese is not inherently vegetarian. After a month of diligent investigation, scrutinizing ingredient labels, and educating myself about animal rennet, I understood that my diet could include dairy, but it had to be vegetarian. And cheese doesn’t always fit that bill.
In This Article
Why Cheese is Not Automatically Vegetarian
While vegetarian diets often include animal products like eggs, honey, and milk — foods produced without the need to end an animal’s life — cheese presents a more complex scenario. Commonly perceived as vegetarian, cheese can contain hidden animal by-products, making it unsuitable for vegetarians, alpha gals, and others with specific dietary restrictions.
The biggest concern with cheese is animal rennet, an enzyme extracted from the stomach lining of slaughtered young ruminants, such as calves, lambs, and goats. This enzyme is traditionally used in the cheese-making process to coagulate milk, separating it into curds and whey. Many cheeses, from aged cheddars to certain Parmesans, owe their texture and flavor to animal rennet.
For vegetarians who abstain from products involving animal death, these types of cheese are off the menu. But more importantly, if you are an alpha gal, ingesting traditional rennet can pose serious health risks, necessitating careful scrutiny of food labels.
What Is Rennet, and Why Is It Important When Making Cheese?
Rennet coagulates milk, separating it into solid curds and liquid whey. From creamy to hard, white to yellow, rennet is essential for creating the varying textures and flavors of cheese. Fortunately for alpha gals and vegetarians, many different forms of rennet are used in cheesemaking, including some mammal-free options.
Animal rennet is the type of rennet used in many traditional cheese recipes. As we covered earlier, traditional rennet is made from the stomach lining of calves, lambs, and kids (the baby goat kind). While not all individuals with alpha-gal syndrome react to dairy products, all alpha gals should avoid mammalian meats and organs. Therefore, cheeses made with animal rennet can trigger symptoms in alpha-gal sufferers. So, while you may be able to drink a glass of skim milk without any issues, you may find that a slice of cheddar on a turkey sandwich or chunks of blue cheese sprinkled on your salad may cause an allergic reaction.
Derived from thistle plants, like artichokes and nettles, plant-based rennet offers a vegetarian alternative for cheese production. These plant enzymes thicken milk as animal rennet does, allowing for the creation of vegetarian cheeses. The rennet is often produced through a fermentation process utilizing bacteria, fungi, or yeasts, which are cultured to produce the coagulating enzymes necessary for cheesemaking.
Microbial rennet is another vegetarian-friendly coagulant used in cheesemaking, derived from cultivating specific types of bacteria, fungi, or yeasts. These microorganisms are fermented under controlled conditions to produce enzymes that can coagulate milk. While microbial rennet is suitable for vegetarians, it can sometimes impart a bitter taste in the final cheese product, especially if it is aged for an extended period. Despite this effect, it remains a popular choice for many cheese producers catering to vegetarian consumers.
What Cheeses are Typically NOT Vegetarian?
Navigating the cheese aisle as an alpha gal or vegetarian can be a minefield since animal rennet is used to make many beloved varieties. Traditional Parmesan, a staple in Italian cuisine, is never vegetarian as it adheres to strict guidelines that include the use of animal rennet. Similarly, Grana Padano and Gorgonzola, with their rich flavors, also fall into the non-vegetarian category for the same reason. The distinctive veins of Roquefort, the king of blue cheeses, are another result of processes involving animal rennet, as are the creamy depths of classic blue cheese.
Other cheeses that often contain animal rennet include Manchego, Camembert, and Brie. These cheeses are typically crafted according to age-old recipes that favor animal rennet for its ability to develop a specific texture and depth of flavor. For vegetarians and those following an alpha-gal diet, it’s crucial to look for labels that specifically mention vegetable rennet, microbial enzymes, or an alternative plant-based coagulating agent.
Cheeses That Are Typically Vegetarian
For vegetarians and alpha gals on a cheese quest, there’s a light at the end of the dairy aisle. Younger, softer cheeses are almost always a good choice because they are produced with vinegar or lemon juice instead of animal rennet. As a result, cottage cheese, cream cheese, paneer, ricotta, chevre, fresh mozzarella, and provolone are generally considered safe for vegetarians and alpha-gals who can tolerate dairy.
How Can You Tell If a Cheese is Vegetarian?
Whether a cheese is vegetarian hinges on the absence of animal-derived rennet or animal enzymes in its ingredients. To ensure that a cheese is vegetarian, scrutinize the packaging for specific terms that indicate the source of the enzymes used in the cheese-making process.
Look for an ingredient list that specifically mentions vegetarian rennet, microbial enzymes, or plant-based enzymes. These terms guarantee that the coagulation process did not involve any animal byproducts. If the packaging is vague, merely listing enzymes or rennet, it’s best to reach out directly to the manufacturer. A quick inquiry to the customer service department should clarify whether the enzymes are animal derived or vegetarian friendly.
Is Vegetarian Cheese Vegan?
When it comes to vegan diets, the rules are clear-cut — no animal products or byproducts. This includes all forms of dairy. So, while vegetarian cheese does not contain animal rennet, it is not automatically a vegan food because it typically contains milk, which is an animal product.
Instead of milk, vegan cheese is made entirely with plant-based ingredients, including nuts like cashews and almonds, soy products, coconut oil, nutritional yeast, and root vegetables. They are blended and processed to mimic the texture and flavor of traditional cheese.
Tips for Buying Vegetarian Cheese
Follow these helpful tips to ensure you’re purchasing vegetarian cheese.
1. Read Labels Carefully. Look for keywords like “vegetarian rennet,” “microbial enzymes,” or “plant-based enzymes” to ensure that the cheese is free from animal rennet.
2. Shop Smart. Shop stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods that clearly label the source of rennet in their house-brand cheeses.
3. Tread Carefully in Europe. Many European cheeses are made with animal rennet due to traditional recipes or labeling laws, so double-check these before consuming.
4. Pick Cheeses Made in the US. American-made versions of cheeses traditionally made with animal rennet, such as Parmesan, Romano, and cheddar, are often available as vegetarian cheese.
5. Support Organic Farmers. Organic cheeses typically ensure more humane treatment of animals and support sustainable farming practices.
6. Consult a Cheesemonger. When in doubt, a cheesemonger can provide expert advice on selecting vegetarian cheeses.
7. Check Credentials. Look for certifications from vegetarian societies or trusted third-party verifiers that confirm the vegetarian status of the cheese.
8. Avoid Unnamed Enzymes. If a label only says “enzymes” or “rennet” the source is likely animal-derived. Contact the manufacturer to confirm.
9. Familiarize Yourself with Brands. Get to know the brands that consistently use vegetable rennet, making your shopping trips quicker and easier.
Brands That Offer Vegetarian Cheese
If you’re on the hunt for vegetarian cheeses, there are several brands that cater to your needs. Artisanal cheese companies have been leading the charge, with Beehive Cheese Company, Cypress Grove, Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, and Pure Luck Dairy offering an array of options that are just as delicious as the animal rennet versions you might have enjoyed in the past. These companies pride themselves on their craft and commitment to vegetarian-friendly ingredients.
On the national stage, brands like Tillamook, Cabot, Yancey’s Fancy, Trader Joe’s, and Organic Valley are also stepping up, providing accessible vegetarian cheese options that don’t skimp on taste or quality. These brands are often found in major supermarkets, making vegetarian cheeses more available than ever.
For those with a penchant for Parmesan cheese, BelGioioso sells a vegetarian Parmesan-style cheese that I’ve been able to pick up at my local Sprout’s grocery store. This vegetarian option allows me to still sprinkle a little salty, creamy goodness over risotto, pasta, and other dishes that just scream for a little Parm on top.
Do You Have a Favorite Vegetarian Cheese?
What are your favorite vegetarian cheese types and brands? Spill the beans — or should I say the curds — by sharing your recommendations in the comments section below.