Is Parmesan Cheese Vegetarian?

Parmesan cheese is used in many recipes for its wonderful flavor and texture. In fact, it would be difficult to find an Italian recipe that doesn't use this type of cheese. Most vegetarians, and people who cook for them, assume that cheese is fine on this type of diet. After all, it's made from cow, goat, or sheep's milk, not the animal itself. Or is it? Is Parmesan cheese vegetarian?

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made according to very strict specifications in only certain areas of Italy. Italian officials designate the places where cheese can be produced as DOP, which is the Italian variation of PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, according to Parmigiano Reggiano USA. The ingredients and the process to make the cheese are strictly regulated, which starts with the cows, how they are milked, how the cheese is produced, and how long it is aged before it can be sold. 

And that's where the question is answered.

Real parm uses a crucial ingredient

True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made with something called rennet. Rennet comes from the lining of a calf's fourth stomach, according to Formaggio Kitchen. It contains enzymes called chymosin and pepsin, which coagulate the proteins in milk so it forms curds. Coagulation is the denaturing (or unfolding), of the protein molecules so they form structures that hold water, per ACS Publications. Young calves are used because the concentration of these enzymes decreases in the stomach lining as the animal is weaned, via the Association of Manufacturers & Formulations of Enzyme Products.

The calves are killed for their meat (veal), and the stomach is a by-product of that slaughter, per MasterClass. The stomach is cut up and the rennet is extracted by soaking it in salt water, according to ChefSteps. This mixture is added to the milk and heated, which activates the enzymes. The curds are separated from the whey, then drained and pressed, and aged to form Parmesan cheese.

Therefore, true Parmesan cheese is not vegetarian. But all is not lost! There are some Parmesan products that are acceptable to vegetarians.

Vegetarian alternatives

While some cheeses including real Parmesan are made with rennet from calves' stomachs, there are alternatives. Formggio Kitchen adds that vegetarian rennets can be made from fermentation, microbes, or vegetables. However, there is some debate about how vegetarian microbial rennets are, according to The Vegetarian Resource Group Blog. It turns out that fermentation-produced chymosin originally came from a calf gene decades ago.

Rennet from plant enzymes may be the most acceptable. The plants used for this type of rennet include artichokes and nettles. So what's a vegetarian to do? Parmesan-like cheeses that are not true Parmigiano-Reggiano do exist. After all, cheeses produced in American and in other countries do not have the strict requirements set by the Italian government and can include cellulose, additives, and preservatives. Vegetatio has a list of vegetarian cheeses and brands, including "Parmesan," that should be acceptable to most vegetarians. However, if you are more of a vegan, you can make your own, or look for brands like Violife, which has a product called just like Parmesan, made of potato starch, coconut oil, salt, and vegan flavoring.