Is Parmesan Cheese Vegetarian?

Starting around sixth grade, I made the decision to become a vegetarian (or, to be perfectly precise, I was a pescetarian, as I did eat fish, but back in the early 2000s nobody had ever heard of this word). This lasted until I was close to graduating college and starting to live with other people who were not vegetarian (or pescetarian, as it were). It became a little too challenging to maintain my diet, so I eventually abandoned my pescatarian ways and now occasionally indulge in some animal flesh. 

Being a vegetarian poses a number of challenges, and one of them is how to get enough protein in your diet. For me, at least, the solution was cheese—gobs of cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So, imagine my surprise when I started researching this article and discovered that in this mountain of cheese, I had actually been eating an animal product. Specifically, I had been eating parmesan. But isn’t parmesan vegetarian? Why not? Can it be vegetarian? Let’s grate out some answers.

(Incidentally, don’t feel too bad for my meat-averse teenage self—it was more of a lifestyle choice than a strict aversion to meat, and I’m sure I also ate a bunch of french fries that were cooked in beef tallow.)

Is parmesan vegetarian?

Parmesan is an Italian cheese with a delicious, umami quality that makes it a popular choice on pastas, pizzas, soups, and anywhere else you want some cheesy goodness. But parmesan is hiding a dark secret (at least for those who are avoiding animal products). It is not strictly vegetarian. Of course, like all cheeses, it’s not vegan, but there’s actually even more to it than that. If you’re following a regimented vegetarian diet, you are going to want to hold the parm. 

Why is parmesan not vegetarian?

If you look at the ingredients list on the back of a container of parmesan, you may see an innocuous-looking word: “enzymes.” Parmesan cheese is historically made with animal enzymes. The culprit to parmesan’s non-vegetarian status is a little something called rennet. Rennet is an animal byproduct enzyme that helps coagulate the milk and separate the curds from the whey. 

Can parmesan be vegetarian?

Parmesan, like all cheeses, needs something to help coagulate the milk. However, the enzymes needed do not necessarily have to come from animals. There is at least one parmesan on the market that proudly advertises its lack of animal rennet: Bel Gioioso offers a vegetarian parm that is guaranteed to be animal rennet free. But do keep in mind that this is the exception to the rule. If it’s not listed as vegetarian, you can assume that your parmesan has some animal rennet used in the process.

Are there other non-vegetarian cheeses? 

If you really want to go down this rabbit hole, then, yes, there are a number of other cheeses that also use animal rennet. While basically any cheese can be made with other enzymes, animal rennet has historically been a popular choice and is still used to make many European cheeses like manchego, gorgonzola, and gruyere. Strict vegetarians, beware!

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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