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 usually? 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. Cheese might be the nr 1 food product in the Netherlands, every Dutchie loves it, and many Americans love their “Gouda” too!

What does vegetarian mean

First of all, What does “vegetarian” mean? Most people consider food vegetarian if  no animal has been killed to produce that food product. 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.

Is cheese vegetarian

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. (separate 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

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.

GMO rennet

I was taught that 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 export do not have GMO. The cheeses made in the Netherlands and sold in the Netherlands usually do.

READ MORE: The Story behind GMO

READ MORE: About rennet and vegetarian cheese

READ MORE: About vegetarian cheeses

Love, Lonneke
p.s. for the Dutchies: Vegatopia has a list of cheeses sold in the Netherlands and you can read about vegetarian cheeses ( in Dutch).
First published on  July 30th 2013, updated in 2019