Is cheese the ‘other white meat’?

Vegetarians and Allergy Sufferers Beware!
Some people choose to have meals that are cheese based and meat-free due to the fact that meats cause them to breakout into hives or stop breathing. A vegetarian makes a conscious decision to eat foods that are plant based, believing it is wrong to kill another creature for nourishment. Whether vegetarianism, allergies or simply a lover of all things cheese leads you to add it to your plate, you are part of a growing crowd of cheese-aholics. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AMRC) reports that in 2011, excluding cottage cheese, US production of cheese was 10.6 billion pounds, up 5 percent from 2010. Only the European Union makes more. In a typical year, the AMRC states that Americans typically consume 10 pounds of cheddar and 10.6 pounds of mozzarella.
Why not eat cheese? It is a nutrient powerhouse containing a significant amount of protein and calcium as well as magnesium, folate, and vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, A, D, and E. Dairy is linked with promoting strong bones and teeth, regulation of blood pressure and, when choosing low fat varieties, with weight management. According to the International Dairy Food Association there are over 2,000 varieties of cheese; one for every taste. Cheese is enticing as well as a nutritionally smart move to make for both vegetarians and meat allergic people.
There is a problem when it comes to cheese because of how it is made. Liquid milk needs to be turned solid to make cheese. Thousands of years ago, it was discovered that an enzyme called rennet does this to milk. Traditionally, rennet has been made from animals (cows, sheep, goats and pigs); by killing very young animals and taking the enzyme out of the stomach lining. Today there is another option, using a vegetable source. Unfortunately it is hard to discern whether or not rennet from an animal was used to make cheese. Some vegetable rennet may also be animal based! The percentage of the rennet that remains in the cheese once it is made ranges from negligible to as much as 50 percent. Vegetarians and those with allergies would agree that only 0 percent animal product is acceptable.
A few cheeses are made without rennet, using citric acid, vinegar or lemon juice to solidify the milk (e.g. Ricotta). In the United States, 90 percent of our cheeses are made from supposedly non-meat rennet. Some cheese is made from plants (cardoon thistle, fig tree bark or nettles). The down side of this option is that the cheese may be bitter, so manufacturers won’t use it. Since 1990, most U.S. manufacturers turn to Fermentation Produced Chymosin (FPC) rennet, which is a genetically modified organism (GMO). In an animal’s genes, the “rennet-making part” is removed from the DNA and put into bacteria, yeast or mold. According to the Food & Drug Administration, the final product is considered vegetarian. FPC rennet has been placed on the GRAS list, which details any ingredient generally recognized as safe for human consumption. However, is it really not harmful? Is it animal free? Most vegetarians do not recognize FPC as animal free due to it origins. Would an allergic person deem it safe? That question is yet to be answered.
How can you, the consumer, distinguish animal rennet from vegetarian in that slice, chunk or crumble? Organic cheese legally cannot have FPC rennet but might have animal rennet. Kosher cheese is a fairly safe bet, since being kosher means that for religious reasons, meat and dairy are separated. But that still leaves hundreds of cheeses unaccounted for in the dairy aisle. Before you sprinkle shredded cheese on your dinner start reading the ingredient list. Words that might mean animal or FPC rennet include:
• Animal Enzyme
• Chymosin
• Enzymes
• Lipase Enzyme
• Microbial Rennet
• Rennet
• Vegetable Rennet
Additionally, there are unadulterated plant based rennet brands from local artisanal cheesemakers such as Bardwell Farms, Cowgirl Creamery, Cypress Gold Farm and River’s Edge. Some national cheesemakers also offer some types of animal-free, non-FPC rennet cheese, among them are Cabot, Friggo, Giant, Kraft, Sargento and Stella. The opposite is true of imported cheeses. Be wary of imported Asiago Camembert, Cheddar, Feta, Gorgonzola, Gruyere, Havarti, Manchego, Parmesan/Reggiano, Pecorino, Provolone, Swiss, etc. on your plate. It is always safest contacting the manufacturer directly to confirm the type of rennet used to make specific products.
Cheese is one of those delicious foods that delivers great taste and some good nutrition with every mouthful. Making sure that it is made with animal and FPC-free rennet will require work on your part, but it is certainly worth the effort. For what would your onion soup, pizza or pasta be without cheese?
Jennifer Giffune, R.D., L.D.N. is a freelance author, professional speaker and nutrition counselor. On the last Wednesday of each month, Jennifer can be heard on 89.5 WSKB radio on the “Wake up Wednesday Morning” Show. To make an appointment with Jennifer at Mercy Medical Group, call 786-1500.

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