In This Article
Choosey About Cheese
When most of us buy a type of cheese, we select it because we want to bite into that particular delectable taste and chewy texture. Many of my readers also prefer cheese that is organic and even raw when possible. But do you know what type of rennet or coagulator was used to turn that milk into cheese – and why you might want to be even more choosey about your cheese?
On my Eat, Pray, BUGS tour, we have been meeting artisan cheese-makers in small European towns that have inspired me to learn more about the different types of rennet and coagulators that help transform milk into different kinds of cheese.
In America and the UK, most of our cheeses are made with a variety of coagulator alternatives – the most common of which is bio-engineered. Since the FDA does not require labels to indicate what kind of rennet is being used, I’d like to share some really cool tips to help you navigate your coagulator of choice.
The History of Rennet and Cheese-Making
Most sources place the origins of cheese-making to 5500 to 6000 BC or earlier. (1,2) Interestingly, researchers recently found milk-fat residues in pottery dating back about 7,200 years along the Vistula River in Poland. (3) While most agree that the origins of cheese were a result of spontaneous fermentation of milk, the cheese industry probably would not exist today if it had not been for the discovery of rennet.
Rennet is a digestive enzyme mixture found in the stomachs of ruminant animals that happen to possess the property of curdling milk. (“Ruminant” refers to any mammal that is able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion.) Rennet consists of digestive enzymes such as lipase for digesting fats, protease and pepsin for digesting the proteins, but primarily it is its content of an enzyme called chymosin, or rennin, which separates the curds and whey necessary in the initial stages of the cheese-making process.
The use of rennet as a coagulator of milk is thought to have been discovered during attempts to transport milk in containers made from the stomachs of cows or other ruminant animals. Most believe that it was the residual amount of rennet made in their stomachs that mixed with the milk during transportation that initiated curdling, thus preserving the milk.
Rennet is Not Vegetarian
This Common Rennet Alternative is Vegetarian…and Bio-Engineered
Many Bio-Engineered Foods are Considered ‘Natural’
The Labels to Look For
Reading the Kosher Certification
A Cheese Touting Microbial Rennet May Actually be Bio-Engineered FPC
Vegetable Rennet and Coagulants
- Caper leaves
- Thistles – the extract is called cynara
- The Mallow plant family
- Ground Ivy
- Phytic acid from soy beans
In Part 1 of this series on Euro-Vedic Cheese-Making, I discuss many of the most typical vegetable-based acid coagulants still used to make the simplest cheeses around the world today, such as paneer, cream, cottage and ricotta cheeses.
Rennet-Less Vegetarian Cheeses
Cheeses made without rennet are typically soft and surrounded by some liquid in the packaging. These cheeses are great for lacto-vegetarians as they are still commonly made without the use of rennet:
- Cottage cheese
- Cream cheese
- Some types of goat cheese
- Some types of mozzarella
- Ice cream, sour cream and yogurt are also made without the use of rennet.
Trader Joe’s is one supplier that has gone through the trouble of creating a pamphlet they call a “Rennet List,” which lists all of the cheeses they carry and the exact source of rennet used in the production of that cheese. [update: this is no longer available on Trader Joe’s site](6)
Appreciating Rennet-Free Ayurveda
While Northern Europeans may not have survived some long winters without cows and cheese, it is clear that the microbiological health benefits delivered from regularly eating cheese were not dependent on pasteurization or rennet.
Perhaps a thousand years before the discovery of rennet, farmers were making cheese with raw milk using spontaneous fermentation. When milk is warmed and left to sit at room temperature, it naturally coagulates. The lactic acid bacteria in the milk starts eating the milk sugar (lactose) and produces more lactic acid. When more lactic acid is produced, the increased acid (lower pH) starts breaking down the hard-to-digest casein, rendering the cheese lactose- and casein-free, which most folks can digest without problems. This spontaneous process is hypothesized to be the origin of cheese around the world – and a great effortless way to preserve milk! (7)
In India there is a famous cheese called paneer, which to this day continues to be touted for its health benefits. Paneer is simply the curds of whole milk that have been brought to an almost-boil with lemon juice added as a coagulant to separate the curds from the whey. We frequently make paneer at home, which is a delicious source of vegetarian protein and surprisingly easy to make – and even easier to eat! >>> My wife’s recipe for making homemade paneer.
Paneer and other simple cheeses from around the world have provided traditional people a natural source of healthy microbes that boost immunity, as well as support innumerable health and psychological benefits that we are only just now beginning to understand.
Cheese Sourcing Tips
At the end of the day, when sourcing cheeses, here are some of my takeaway tips:
- Dairy and cheese products are not a requirement for optimal health.
- When eaten in small amounts and in the right season, dairy and cheese products can be a source of good probiotic bacteria. As all fermented foods, including cheese and yogurt, are acidic and heating to the body, take the season and your body type into consideration. Consume more in the winter (vata), less in the summer (pitta) and even less in the spring (kapha).
- Eat simple, organic, rennet-less cheeses, like the ones mentioned above.
- Organic yogurt is a great source of probiotics, and doesn’t contain rennet.
- Most importantly, if you want to eat hard cheeses, look for the “USDA Organic and Kosher” labels. Since you can’t be sure what type of rennet or coagulant has been used, know that “USDA Organic” eliminates bio-engineered FPC rennets, and “Kosher” eliminates all animal-derived coagulants like lipases and rennet. Since cheese labeling isn’t specific, you can deduce that if the cheese is labeled “USDA Organic and Kosher” it was made using one of the following non-animal and non-bio-engineered coagulants that I have described in more detail above:
- Microbial enzyme coagulant: natural coagulating enzymes from mold
- Vegetable rennets
- Rennet-free cheeses
With these tips in mind and an eye on balance, enjoy delicious, health-supportive, microbiome-nourishing cheeses as part of la dolce vita.
- Salque M, (2012). “Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe”. Nature (Nature Publishing Group). doi:10.1038/nature11698.
- Subbaraman, Nidhi (12 December 2012). “Art of cheese-making is 7,500 years old”. Nature.
- http://www.traderjoes.com/ Update: no longer available
- Lactic Acid Bacteria as Starter-Cultures for Cheese Processing:Past, Present and Future Developments. J. Marcelino Kongo. http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/55937