Why is Parmesan not vegetarian?

Answered by Marvin Richey

As a sommelier and brewer, I have had the opportunity to explore the world of food and beverages extensively. And one topic that often comes up is the vegetarian status of certain foods. Parmesan cheese, or Parmigiano-Reggiano as it is known in Italy, is one such food that may surprise many as being non-vegetarian.

So, why is Parmesan not vegetarian? The answer lies in the production process and the use of an ingredient called rennet. Rennet is a complex enzyme that is essential in the cheese-making process as it helps coagulate the milk and separate it into curds and whey. Traditionally, rennet was obtained from the fourth stomach of young grazing animals like calves, goats, or lambs.

The extraction of rennet involves slaughtering the animal and extracting the stomach lining. This process, understandably, does not align with the principles of vegetarianism. Therefore, any cheese that uses animal rennet, including Parmesan, cannot be considered vegetarian.

However, it is important to note that not all Parmesan cheese is made with animal rennet. Some producers now use microbial or vegetable rennet, which is derived from sources such as fungi or plants. These alternatives provide an option for vegetarians who still want to enjoy the flavor and texture of Parmesan.

It is worth mentioning that the use of animal rennet in Parmesan cheese is deeply rooted in tradition and history. In fact, the use of animal rennet can be traced back to ancient times when it was discovered that animal stomachs contained natural enzymes that facilitated the cheese-making process. This traditional method is still highly regarded and protected by strict regulations in Italy, which is why authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be made using animal rennet.

Personally, I have encountered situations where vegetarians have been surprised to learn that Parmesan cheese is not vegetarian. It can be a disappointment for those who may have unknowingly consumed Parmesan and violated their dietary choices. However, it is important to educate oneself about the production processes of different foods to make informed choices.

To summarize, Parmesan cheese is not vegetarian because it traditionally uses animal rennet, which is obtained from the stomach lining of young grazing animals. However, there are alternative versions of Parmesan cheese available that use microbial or vegetable rennet, catering to the needs of vegetarians. It is essential for individuals to check the labels or inquire about the production methods to ensure that the Parmesan cheese they consume aligns with their dietary choices.