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It's getting easier to find vegetarian, even vegan, alternatives to products like burgers, milks, and sausage, and now even cheeses are available in vegetarian and vegan varieties. Many vegetarians don't consider that some of the cheeses they are eating could actually contain unfamiliar animal ingredients. That's right cheese, a common staple in many vegetarian diets, is often made with rennet or rennin, which is used to coagulate the dairy product.
According to the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, rennin, which is an enzyme used in coagulating cheese, is obtained from milk-fed calves. "After butchering, the fourth stomach...is removed and freed of its food content." After this the stomach goes through several steps including being dry-salted, washed, scraped to remove surface fat, stretched onto racks where moisture is removed, then finally ground and mixed with a salt solution until the rennin is extracted.
So what are your options if you want to continue eating cheese and remain vegetarian? There are quite a few possibilities. The companies listed below make either all or some of their cheeses with alternatives to rennet or rennin. Microbial enzymes, or vegetable enzymes, which are neither vegetable, nor animal, but are microbes, are now used by several smaller cheese producers for many, if not all, of their cheeses. Most of these companies are smaller and make gourmet-style cheeses, although some larger companies do have vegetarian selections. At this time many of the larger cheese producing companies we contacted cannot guarantee that their cheeses are made without rennet. They often use a mixture of microbial enzymes and rennet.
One way to guarantee that you're getting a vegetarian cheese is to choose one from the "Soy Cheeses/Cheese Alternatives" section. Many of these cheeses are even vegan. Although it may seem like they would all be vegan, since many are called "non-dairy," they are not. In most soy cheeses on the market at this time you will find an ingredient called casein or calcium caseinate, which is a milk protein used to give texture to cheeses. Several of the companies listed that make cheese alternatives, produce both vegan and vegetarian cheeses, and these are clearly defined.
Are you getting enough calcium from cheese alternatives? While a serving of many of the cheese alternatives supplies between 10 to 25 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium, which is currently 800 milligrams a day for adults 25 and over, you can add to your calcium intake with several vegan foods. Four ounces of tofu processed with calcium sulfate provides between 250 and 756 milligrams of calcium, thus almost meeting the RDA. Other foods high in calcium include collard greens, spinach, soybeans, tahini, almonds, and broccoli. As with dairy products, some of these high calcium foods (nuts and nut butters) tend to be higher in fat, so use sparingly.
Even in larger cities the selection of vegetarian cheeses and cheese alternatives is limited, but you do have other options. Some vegetarian cookbooks include recipes for "cheezes," commonly made from tofu, nuts, or milk alternatives. Two of the most "famous" cheese alternative cookbooks are The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, edited by Hagler and Bates, which includes recipes like macaroni and "cheese" casserole and Richard's yogurt "cheese" and The Uncheese Cookbook, by Stepaniak, with unusual creations like vegan Gouda and Brie! Both of these books are available from The Vegetarian Resource Group.
Whether you want to continue to eat dairy products or are looking for vegan cheeses, there is a wide selection. The key like many other aspects of a vegetarian diet is to read labels and ask questions. If you are not sure whether the cheese you enjoy is vegetarian, and it's not on our list, try contacting the company and let us know the results so we can include your information in updates.
Many of these cheese alternatives are vegan. If looking for a vegan cheese, be sure it is free of casein or calcium caseinate, a milk protein commonly used in soy cheeses for texture.
NUTRITIONAL YEAST "CHEESE"
from The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook
Mix dry ingredients in saucepan. Whisk in water. Cook over medium heat, whisking, until it thickens and bubbles. Cook 30 seconds, then remove from heat, whip in margarine and mustard. It will thicken as it cools, but will thin when heated, or when water is added. Makes 3 cups.
Note: If you'd like to lower the fat content of this recipe, use a tablespoon of margarine. This works just as well. It can also be prepared without using any margarine at all.
Variation: For a richer stretchier sauce that's good on pizza, substitute for the flour: 1/4 cup cornstarch and 2 Tbsp Flour. Instead of margarine, whip in 1/2 cup of oil after it cooks, and add as much as 1 cup of water at the end, or as needed to make a thick, smooth sauce that pours easily. Pour it on pizza and for the last few minutes of baking, put pizza under broiler for a few minutes to form a stretchy, golden brown speckled skin.*Nutritional Yeast comes in both flakes and powdered form. The information and recipes included here pertain to nutritional yeast flakes. They have a yellow or gold color, and make a
tasty topping for vegetables, salads and popcorn, and can be used to make many delicious gravies, casseroles and sauces. Nutritional yeast flakes can be found in many health food stores or ordered through the mail. They are available through the Mail Order Catalog, PO Box 180, Summertown, TN 38483, 800-695-2011; or Walnut Acres, Penns Creek, PA 17862, 800-433-3998.
Nutritional yeast is often cited as containing vitamin B12, although there is some controversy as to how much of it the body can use. We do know that at least one type, Red Star T6635, has been tested and is shown to be a reliable source of active vitamin B12. The nutritional yeast flakes available from both The Mail Order Catalog and Walnut Acres are the Red Star T6635 type. Apparently, the powdered form from Walnut Acres is Red Star NBC 600 which is not a good source of vitamin B12.
MACARONI AND "CHEESE" CASSEROLE
from The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook
Cook 3-1/2 cups elbow macaroni. In a saucepan, melt 1/2 cup margarine over low heat. Beat in 1/2 cup flour with a wire whisk and continue to beat over a medium flame until the mixture (called a roux) is smooth and bubbly. Whip in 3-1/2 cups boiling water, 1-1/2 tsp. salt, 2 Tbsp. soy sauce, 1-1/2 tsp. garlic powder, and a pinch of turmeric, beating well. The sauce should cook until it thickens and bubbles. Then whip in 1/4 cup oil and 1 cup nutritional yeast flakes.
Mix part of the sauce with the noodles and put in casserole dish, and pour a generous amount of sauce on top. Sprinkle top with paprika, and bake for 15 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Put in broiler for a few minutes until "cheese" sauce gets stretchy and crisp. Serves 5.
Total calories per serving: 585
Percent of calories from fat: 46%
from Tofu Cookery by Louise Hagler
Have your favorite 8-inch pie shell ready. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Blend in a food processor or blender until smooth and creamy:
Pour this mixture into an unbaked pie shell. Bake for 1 hour until set. Serve cold. Serves 6.
Total calories per serving: 445
Percent of calories from fat: 42%
The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
Phone: (410) 366-8343
Our health professionals, activists, and educators work with businesses and individuals to bring about healthy changes in your school, workplace, and community. Registered dietitians and physicians aid in the development of nutrition-related publications and answer member and media questions about vegetarian diets. The Vegetarian Resource Group is a non-profit organization. Financial support comes primarily from memberships, contributions, and book sales. Click here for more details on VRG.
The contents of this website and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.
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