When you order something vegetarian at a lunch room, you probably get a sandwich or salad with cheese in it. But did you know cheese is actually not vegetarian? So all those restaurants are wrong when they serve dishes with cheese in it and say it is vegetarian. Unless they can prove that the cheese is actually vegetarian.
First of all, What does “vegetarian” mean? Most people consider food vegetarian if no animal has been killed to produce that food item. So with that explanation foods derived from animals, like eggs,milk and butter can be used as the animal has not been killed for it. But some people argue that the production of milk and eggs is also not that humane for the animals and they also refuse to eat that too. So there are many different kinds of vegetarians, that the exact meaning of being vegetarian means something different to each person. On the most extreme end is veganism, and vegan food which means the food has no animal derived ingredients whatsoever. There are vegan cheeses on the market. But I personally don’t like “fake” vegan cheese. A lot of times vegan products are too processed, or are full of fats and/or sugars to make it taste good.
Back to the cheese. Cheese is only vegetarian if vegetarian rennet is used to produce the cheese. Most cheeses use animal rennet. Rennet is a complex of enzymes found in an animals stomach, to digest the mother’s milk. These enzymes coagulate the milk. (seperate into a solid curds and liquid whey) To get this rennet you have to extract substances from animal stomachs…. (yuck!) They are a byproduct of veal production. So there goes your idea you save an animal by not eating meat…
Vegetable rennet is made from either fungal/bacterial sources or genetically modified micro-organisms. (different plants like figs,nettles, thistles, mallow, and ground ivy (Creeping Charlie) to name a few) Sometimes it is even made from the mold Mucor miehei or soybeans. These plants also have coagulating properties.
There are even cheeses that are made with GMO (vegetarian)rennet, so besides checking what rennet is used, you should also find out if the cheese is made with GMO ingredients or not. In the Netherlands, organic cheeses and cheeses for expert do not have GMO. The cheeses made in the Netherlands and sold in the Netherlands usually do. To read more in Dutch about vegetarian cheeses go HERE
Even though the Netherlands (Holland) is known for their cheeses, that I love, I found also a few great tasting cheeses by companies that are certified vegetarian and GMO free.
You can read more about rennet and vegetable cheese on Wikipedia
There are other companies that offer either organic and/or vegetarian cheeses: (have yet to try them!)
About.com has a list of vegetarian cheeses
and on www.cheese.joyousliving.com.
for the Dutchies: Vegatopia has a list of cheeses sold in the Netherlands.