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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Food Smarts: Know what is listed in the ingredients

Courtesy of

I am a health conscious person and I have been a vegetarian for 18 years. I have tried a few times to go vegan, but have failed due to my adoration of cheese. I have never been a person to study food labels, just assuming that based on common sense, certain foods did not contain meat, or that cheese, for example only contained milk from an animal. Oh boy, I was wrong.
My whole outlook on consuming food took an interesting turn while at work the other day. A customer asked a co-worker a simple question about an ingredient in the Parmesan cheese, animal rennet to be exact. He asked another employee and found the answer that shock my world. Animal rennet, as it turns out, is from a mammals stomach. It is series of complex enzymes that are commonly used in the production of cheese for the use of coagulating the milk and separating it into solids and liquid.

Ok. So, I admit that I should have done this research a long time ago, but I didn't. So here I am, an 18 year vegetarian veteran finding out something that is probably common knowledge to many other people. Shame on me. However, I spent a long time looking at different cheese after I found this out and discovered that a majority of the cheeses use vegetable rennet or microbial rennet.

I did some more research though and discovered that vegetable rennet is mostly derived from mold. Yum. However, this would technically make it a microbial rennet and leave the cheese with somewhat of a bitter taste. Another option is genetically engineered rennet, which turns me off immediately because anything concocted in a lab to pass as food, makes me apprehensive. Below is a description of GM rennet from Wikipedia. It is a complicated thing and I do not think I can explain it well enough.
"With the development of genetic engineering, it became possible to insert cow genes into certain bacteria, fungi or yeasts to make them produce chymosin. Chymosin produced by genetically modified organisms was the first artificially produced enzyme to be registered and allowed by the US Food and Drug Administration. In 1999, about 60% of US hard cheese was made with genetically engineered chymosin[4] and it has up to 80% of the global market share for rennet.[5] By 2008, approximately 80% to 90% of commercially made cheeses in the US and Britain were made using GM-based rennet.[6] One example of a commercially available genetically engineered rennet is Chymax, created by Pfizer. Today, the most widely used genetically engineered rennet is produced by the fungus Aspergillus niger.

Cheese production with genetically engineered rennet is similar to production with natural calf rennet. GMO-produced rennet contains only one of the known main chymosin types, either type A or type B. Other chymosin types found in natural rennet do not exist in GMO-produced rennet."

It goes on to say that GM rennet is safe to use by vegetarians but that requires knowing if calf rennet has been used during the genetic modification and by simply reading the ingredients on the back of a package, you are not going to be able to tell. So, this poses a problem for me because my diet contains a lot of cheese. It is my downfall. I love pizza, and bagels with cream cheese and dips with cheese and cheese and crackers. All of these things I limit to indulging in only every once and awhile, but on a daily basis I put cheese in my wraps, on my salad, I sprinkle some on my roasted vegetables.
I have read that cheese can be addictive. I found a great Op piece from, by Anthony Howard, titled "Culinary Curious: Addicted to Cheese? Here's why." He explains that the primary protein in milk is casein and when humans digest it, our bodies produce casomorphins, which have a "opiate-like" effect on humans. Casein in cheese is very concentrated and therefor produces a lot of casomorphines in humans as compared to other dairy products, such as plain old milk. In addition research starting in the 80s confirmed that cheese already contains small amounts of morphine, explained by scientists as a result of cows producing it in their milk to help calm their calves. Aw and Ew all at once.

So, now I have a mountain of reasons to not consume cheese. Will I stop completely? Probably not. I wish my will power was stronger than it is, and I admire and envy all vegans out there kicking ass and taking names. However, my life is already difficult enough as a vegetarian. I love my lifestyle and food choices, but I am not going to say it is always easy. I do not crave meat, but simply making smart choices can be hard. Also, when you cook for someone who does eat meat, things get tricky. If I added no cheese to the list, not only would I be making two meals each night, but my food bill would increase, since I would probably wind up buying both dairy and dairy substitute products.

All of this information does make me eager to be more informed about exactly what is in my food. This scenario only occurred last week and since then I have turned over very package and read the ingredients. If there is something I do not recognize I look it up on my fancy smart phone. I encourage you to do the same. Just be aware of what you are putting in your body and if you are not comfortable with it, make changes accordingly. I plain to curb my cheese intake and to definitely try to only purchase ones that are made with vegetable rennet.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I never knew this either. Very interesting. I will look out for this as well.