Parmesan Cheese Isn’t Actually Vegetarian—Here’s What to Know

Attention, vegetarian cheese-lovers: Pay close attention to your food labels.

The deciding factor in choosing to follow a vegetarian diet rather than a fully vegan one often comes down to one main ingredient: cheese. Without it, some of the best culinary indulgences (pasta, pizza, casseroles, quesadillas, mozzarella sticks—the list goes on) just aren’t the same when substituting in nutritional yeast or vegan cheese. If you're a plant-based eater and a cheese lover, we have some disappointing news—there are a few types of cheeses out there that technically aren’t vegetarian. The most heartbreaking one? Parmesan cheese.

If you’re new to following a plant-based lifestyle, this may come as a shock, but sadly it’s impossible to make parmesan cheese without using an animal byproduct. Here’s exactly what’s in parmesan cheese, plus which ingredients on food labels to look out for so you can avoid accidentally consuming a meat product in the future.

Ingredients for pasta dish or pizza - milk, freshly grated parmesan cheese on a wooden table, and kitchen utensils (grater) on a wooden table, top view. Messy style. Preparations for cooking process.
Anna Kurzaeva / Getty Images

What Is In Parmesan Cheese?

Like any other cheese, parmesan is made with a mix of pasteurized milk and salt, but there’s a hidden ingredient that’s tough to identify on food labels: enzymes. 

If you look carefully at your food label, you might see just “enzymes” on the back of the package with little to no further explanation. This refers to either animal, plant, or microbial enzymes. Parmesan is always made with animal enzymes, also called animal rennet, meaning it’s not vegetarian. 

What Is Animal Rennet?

Animal rennet is an enzyme that’s extracted from the stomach lining of cows. The reason it’s added to parmesan cheese (and many other cheese products like gorgonzola, pecorino romano, gruyere, and manchego) is because the enzyme helps separate milk into curds, which creates the actual product. 

How to Find Vegetarian Cheese Options

Food manufacturers are not required by law to label a product as vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly. If a company does have this label on the packaging, it’s because they wanted to willingly advertise it as a selling point. Therefore, it’s up to you to do some digging to make sure everything you’re consuming is truly vegetarian.

Stores like Whole Foods will often sell clearly labeled parmesan cheese alternatives made with vegetarian enzymes (however they’re not truly considered Parmesan-Reggiano cheese because they don’t come from that specific region). 

You can also look for a kosher label on cheese products, which automatically signifies that meat products had no interaction with the cheese product. Other cheeses like cottage cheese, cream cheese, or paneer are typically never made with animal products. If you’re ever unsure, make sure to read the label to determine if meat products are hiding in your cheese.

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  1. "Cheese." The Vegetarian Society.

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