Is Monterey Jack Cheese Vegetarian?

Monterey Jack cheese is a white, semi-hard cheese made from cow’s milk. Its flavor is mild and buttery, comparable to the flavor of Colby and mozzarella. It has a high fat and moisture content that makes it perfect for melting, it is especially popular in Mexican cuisine.

Monterey Jack cheese is often combined with other cheeses, like Colby and cheddar. The process of making Monterey Jack depends on the manufacturer. It usually contains pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, and potato starch. All of these ingredients are vegetarian, but more often than not, Monterey Jack cheese will contain rennet, which is not vegetarian.

By definition, Monterey Jack cheese is not vegetarian. It contains rennet, which is an enzyme taken from the stomach of an animal (like whey). Because rennet comes directly from the animal and is not a byproduct, it is not vegetarian. 

What Is Vegetarianism?

Someone who has eaten meat and dairy their entire life may get veganism and vegetarianism confused. A person who is vegetarian refrains from meat, but will eat dairy products like eggs and cheese. Someone who is vegan doesn’t consume any products that come from an animal, including dairy and oftentimes refrains from purchasing goods made from animals such as  leather.

However, being vegetarian looks different for every person. Maybe one person’s definition is solely no meat, and others may refrain from consuming other products that contain small amounts of gelatin, rennet, and whey, which are made from parts of animals.

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What Is Rennet?

Rennet is an enzyme called rennin or chymosin. It is taken from the stomach lining of an animal, like a calf for cheese, and used for food. Rennet can also be taken from ewes and baby goats. Because of its origins, rennet is not vegetarian and this can cause problems for vegetarians who are cheese lovers. In recipes, there are substitutes for Monterey Jack cheese, but be sure to check the labels. Rennet is used in many cheeses.

Vegetarian rennet does exist, though less common. Rennet that is vegetarian is created from plants or microbial rennet. Microbial rennet is grown in a lab on organisms like fungi or yeast, and since it is not derived from an animal this makes it vegetarian. If a label on cheese says it contains vegetable rennet or microbial rennet, it’s safe to eat for full vegetarians.

Unfortunately, there are no requirements that a cheese must be labeled with the type of rennet that was used. Sometimes cheese that is vegetarian will be labeled with a V, but if the type of rennet on the label isn’t specified, it’s safe to bet that the cheese is not vegetarian.

It might be shocking to find out that many cheeses are not vegetarian. There are also many types of cheese that do not use rennet, and thus are vegetarian. Vegan substitutes for cheese also exist, and while they do not contain any dairy, there surely will not be any rennet in those either.

What Other Cheeses Aren’t Vegetarian?

Speaking technically, many other cheeses aren’t actually vegetarian. These would include: parmesan, cheddar, gorgonzola, gruyere, camembert, Swiss, and manchego. Some manufacturers do make vegetarian-friendly versions of these beloved cheeses, but you’ll need to look for it on the label. 

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If it’s not specified, it probably has rennet that has been derived from an animal. Kraft is one popular brand that claims to use microbial enzymes, meaning their cheese is vegetarian. Many brands use microbial enzymes for some cheeses but not all, so if it’s important to you, be sure to check labels, or online before purchasing, for confirmation.

What Cheeses Are Vegetarian?

It may come as a shock that many cheeses use products from the animal itself, and therefore are not vegetarian. Traditionally, softer cheeses are made vegetarian. These include cottage cheese, cream cheese, and paneer. The dairy in these types of cheese is curdled with vinegar or lemon juice instead of rennet, making them vegetarian.

If you want a vegetarian cheese, the ones listed above are safe, but also looking for certified Kosher cheese can be useful. The Jewish religion has a ruling that states milk and meat products cannot be eaten together, so most stores sell Kosher products. 

Products that are Kosher will be indicated by a K or OU on the label or package. This means they are safe for vegetarians and people who eat Kosher alike. Kosher products can most commonly be found in the small International section of many grocery stores. 

Final Thoughts

It may come as a shock that Monterey Jack cheese is in fact, not vegetarian. It contains rennet, which is an enzyme from the stomach of an animal. Monterey Jack is not the only cheese that isn’t vegetarian, but many brands do make vegetarian-friendly cheese nowadays.

Whether or not they knowingly eat cheese made from rennet will vary between different vegetarians. But technically speaking, it’s not classified as vegetarian. If you still want to enjoy cheese with a clear conscience, look for any with a V labeling it vegetarian. Products that are Kosher are also vegetarian, as part of the Jewish religion rules that milk and meat should not be consumed together.

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Instead of using rennet, some manufacturers are turning to microbial rennet. This means it’s derived from plants in a lab, and is okay for strict vegetarians to consume. So, while Monterey Jack is traditionally not vegetarian, with a little searching it’s likely you’ll come across a substitute that is vegetarian and just as tasty.