Cheese is widely accepted as being part of a vegetarian diet, but did you know that not all cheese is actually vegetarian? Discover how to know which cheeses you can eat when following a vegetarian diet.
Cheese is often a deal-breaker when considering a vegan diet because many don’t want to give up this favorite food. But it's also not always suitable for vegetarians too.
I know I was pretty shocked the day I discovered that even as a vegetarian some cheeses are forever off-limits.
Vegetarian cheese does exist which means you can still enjoy your favorite foods such as pizza rolls or grilled cheese sandwiches, but you need to know a few things to choose the right one.
Keep reading to discover more about which cheeses are safe, which might be ok, and how to determine the difference.
Why is cheese not vegetarian?
In the cheesemaking process, rennin, an enzyme found in the fourth stomach of some animals is used to help the cheese curdle and harden. Without it, the coagulation of milk wouldn't take place and the cheese wouldn’t thicken or harden.
A few cheeses, mostly soft varieties, are made without rennet and are safe for vegetarians to consume.
Today, there are other plant-derived forms of rennet that are widely used by some manufacturers but not all of them which makes determining whether or not your cheese is vegetarian a bit difficult.
Here are the most common vegetarian alternatives for coagulating cheese used by some cheese makers and manufacturers.
- Microbial enzymes: These vegetarian enzymes are derived from fungi or bacteria rather than an animal.
- Vegetable-based coagulants: Different plants are used to make this vegetarian rennet.
What types of cheese are vegetarian?
The good news is that there are a few kinds of cheese that are made without rennet making them safe for vegetarians to eat. This list contains mostly soft cheeses.
- Ricotta cheese: Ricotta is more closely related to dairy products rather than cheese as it is made without any type of rennet. You can actually make it at home with just some lemon juice or vinegar.
- Cream cheese: This tangy, creamy cheese that easily spreads is made from cow’s milk but no rennet. It’s more processed than other cheeses and ingredients such as xanthan gum or guar gum are added to give it a soft yet slightly firm texture.
- Paneer cheese: This type of cheese used in Indian cooking is made with a process similar to ricotta cheese using whole milk and lemon or lime juice. The biggest difference is that it is pressed and forms a block of soft cheese that looks a lot like tofu.
- Cottage cheese: A type of fresh cheese that curdles into large or small curds and is packaged and sold in containers. It is made from dairy milk but doesn’t use any type of rennet.
- American swiss cheese: In the US swiss cheese is usually made without rennet. Its cousin, Emmenthal may be made using animal or plant-based rennet so you will need to be a bit more observant of the ingredient list. European swiss cheese is not vegetarian since most of it is made using rennet.
What types of cheeses are not vegetarian?
These cheeses are more commonly made using rennet derived from animals. They will require a bit more knowledge, research, and questions in order to determine if they are vegetarian.
- Hard cheeses: In most cases, hard cheese is almost always made with traditional rennet. Some popular cheeses in this category in the US may be available as vegetarian by certain brands. You can check the list below for some ideas for safe brands.
- Artisan cheese: These cheeses include small farm cheeses and are most likely made with animal rennet.
- Gorgonzola: This sharp, pungent cheese is almost never vegetarian.
- Parmiggiano-Reggiano and Parmesan cheese: In the United States there may be some brands that make a vegetarian version but if it’s labeled Parmiggiano Reggiano it’s definitely not vegetarian as it must be made by a special technique using animal rennet to be labeled with the name.
- European cheeses: Not all but in many cases, European cheeses are all made with animal rennet.
- Goat cheese: This variety of soft cheese uses animal rennet in its production.
What brands offer a vegetarian option
Trying to determine which cheeses are vegetarian can get a little tricky. This handy vegetarian cheese list from cheese.com is a great resource to identify detailed information about vegetarian options for cheese that you can find in your grocery stores.
Here are a few popular brands that have some vegetarian options:
- 365 by Whole Foods Market
- Laughing Cow
What are good cheese alternatives for vegans?
When it comes to vegan cheese there are a few different options.
First, there are quite a few brands of store-bought vegan cheese out there on the market. They are often made from some blend of coconut oil, tofu and/or nuts to try to imitate the texture of cheese.
In many cases, they may get close to replicating real cheese but they are often quite different in terms of how they melt and taste from their traditional counterparts. I've noticed the slices in most brands tend to melt better than the shreds.
Store-bought brands may offer a line of grated, block, and cheese slices.
Our favorite brand is Chao, while Violife and Follow Your Heart are next in line. Other options include Daiya, which is OK for certain varieties but not my favorite. If you're looking for one to serve with crackers, Miyoko's is a good brand.
Other options for vegans is to make their own cheese alternatives at home using simple ingredients and flavorings or rely on other creamy spreads such as hummus in place of cheese.
Use nutritional yeast to add delicious cheese flavor to vegan foods without any dairy products. It's a key ingredient in many homemade vegan cheese sauces and recipes such as macaroni and cheese.
- If you aren’t sure how a cheese is made or don’t have access to an ingredient list then it’s best to avoid eating it since it could contain some animal products.
- Watch out for enzymes in the ingredient list. This term itself is not specific enough so the cheese could actually be made using animal rennet.
- Remember soft cheese such as ricotta, cottage cheese, cream cheese and American swiss are always vegetarian.
Frequently asked questions
Traditional cheese is not vegan. Cheese is made with animal milk and sometimes animal rennet. If you are following a vegan diet, you can eat cheese that is specifically made for vegans and don’t contain any animal products.
The easiest and best way to identify a vegetarian cheese is to check the food label on the package.
First, look for the Kosher markings, K, Circle K, and Circle U. Kosher cheese must be made without animal rennet in order for them to be labeled as such.
The other method is to check the cheese label. If you’re lucky it will specifically state vegetable rennet, vegetarian rennet, or microbial rennet which would make it vegetarian. However, in my research, I frequently found only “enzymes” in the food label which really doesn’t tell you enough info as they could be plant or animal enzymes.
If the first two methods don't work then you may need to find an extensive detailed list from a trusted source or do your own research of manufacturers' sites.
More topics to explore
- How Long Does Quinoa Last
- Are Pretzels Vegan?
- Vegan Egg Substitutes
- Are M&M's Vegan?
- How Long Does Hummus Last?
While there isn't a simple yes or no answer to the question, "Is Cheese Vegetarian?" hopefully you now have a bit more information to help you make the best decision when it comes to buying vegetarian cheese.
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