Is cheese GMO? Well, cheese is made with rennet. Rennet is an enzyme that curdles milk. There are five types of rennet. Some are GMO. Do you know which cheeses are made with it?
Even though I don’t eat dairy on daily basis due to my sensitivity to it, I still occasionally indulge in a piece of beautifully aged cheese. And when I do indulge, I make sure I get the ones that are best for me.
Dairy Is Important
For someone whose favorite food group is dairy, it’s not easy being dairy-free! So, my goal here is not to demonize dairy. I believe dairy is very important – a real nutritional powerhouse – and I make sure that I include it my family’s daily diet even if I cannot eat it. Whole goat milk, whole milk yogurt, kefir, butter, and ghee all have a spot in my refrigerator; from time to time, we add cheese, too.
Aged Cheeses Are Low in Lactose
Although most dairy bothers me, I have found that an occasional piece of hard cheese doesn’t cause any skin issues like other types of dairy do. Being able to eat hard cheeses such as Parmesan, Cheddar, Gouda, and Swiss without any issues could possibly mean that you’re having a hard time digesting lactose. Aged hard cheeses have very small amounts of lactose; the older they are the less lactose they contain.
According to this article:
“During the cheese making process, most of the lactose is drained off with the whey (a liquid portion). The small amount that remains in the curd is changed to lactic acid during ripening (aging) of cheese. Only trace amounts of lactose remain.”
Is Your Cheese GMO?
The reason I prefer Parmesan over any other cheese is that besides it’s low lactose content, it’s usually made with animal rennet to preserve its taste and avoid bitterness. That also means that it’s not likely to be made with GMO ingredients.
What is Rennet?
Rennet is a coagulating agent used in the cheese-making process; it’s an animal derived enzyme that curdles milk. This source identifies five commonly used rennets.
- Animal rennet is one of five commonly used coagulating agents used by cheese makers. Its enzymes are sourced from the fourth stomach of baby cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo, deer, elk, and lately even camels. The rumor on using rennet from baby giraffes hasn’t been confirmed but the theory is out there. Being twice as expensive as its alternatives, animal rennet is rarely used.
Four other coagulating agents that are used are:
- Microbial Rennet – produced in a lab using specific mold types, yeast, and fungus organisms. It is vegetarian but it’s becoming harder to find. Also, according to cheese makers, it’s not suitable for aged cheeses since it affects the cheese’s flavor by adding bitterness to it.
- Vegetable Rennet – the enzyme is sourced from plants that have coagulating properties such as cardoon thistle, fig tree bark or nettles. While traditional in some European countries, it’s hard to find in the US.
- FPC-Fermentation Produced Chymosin Rennet – a GMO product made in a lab using a similar procedure that’s used to make vaccines. It’s banned in GMO-free European countries but we cannot be sure that cheeses that are imported from Europe don’t contain it. While cheese makers in Europe have to conform to European standards for cheese sold in Europe, they can still use FPC for cheese that will be exported to the US and they likely use them due to lower costs. It is estimated that 90% of all cheese sold in the US is made with FPC. Sadly, cheese made with FPC rennet is not required to be labeled as a GMO product.
- Citric Acid or Vinegar – it has limited use for softer cheeses. If the cheese is not labeled as organic, it’s hard to tell if this rennet is GMO or not. The most common way to make vinegar is by using corn that’s been converted from starch to sugar. And as we know, 88% of all corn grown in the US is genetically modified.
Which Cheeses to Choose?
There’s no real way to tell if cheese is GMO or not. Of course, trusting the Non-GMO Project and USA Organic labels would alleviate some of the doubt. Cheese is a great example of why buying local is so important. If you know a local cheese maker, you could always ask them what kind of rennet they use in their cheeses. Also, choosing aged cheeses such as Parmesan that are traditionally made with the animal rennet is a good way to go.
If you’re looking to avoid GMO cheeses, you could also choose rennet-free cheeses. Some cheeses, such as cottage cheese, cream cheese, or ricotta are made without rennet.
What’s The Best Way To Enjoy Cheese?
Finally, let’s talk about eating cheese! As someone who grew up in two Mediterranean countries that are proud of their cheeses and traditional mezze platters, my favorite way is to create a simple mezze platter on a rustic cutting board.
Cheese and Salami Mezze Platter
Cheese and salami is a traditional Mediterranean mezzo platter. It’s traditionally served as an appetizer or light afternoon snack for company.
- 4 ounces Italian salami Genoa or Sopressata
- 2 ounces prosciutto
- 1 cup olives
- 2 ounces Parmesan
- 2 ounces Gorgonzola
- 2 ounces Robiola
- 2 sprigs rosemary
Slice the salami and arrange on a wooden cutting board or a decorative platter together with prosciutto.
Roughly chop cheese and add to the platter.
Place olives in a small bowl and place on the serving board.
Serve right away.
Rosemary branches make nice decor and fruit such as pear or figs are a lovely addition.