A question to all vegetarians. What will be your reaction when you find out that some of the common stuff you have been eating all along have unfamiliar animal (derived) ingredients? I was shocked to the core. That's the least I can explain how I felt.
I won't call myself (our family too) a staunch vegetarian because we have eaten eggs in one form or the other. We don't bring it home, but enjoy store bought baked goods (some of which may contain lard also, who knows?), ice cream etc. But that too has reduced a lot since I started baking. I really can't remember the last time I bought a cake or a muffin. Sometimes I get cookies/bars for my son, but keep checking the ingredients list for eggs and/or any other animal fat like lard, tallow or gelatin. I also check the nutrition table for the fat content, sugar, fiber, protein etc for cereals and other processed goods.
I'm sure many of us do all these things. But how many of you have seen the ingredients list in yogurt, cheese, chips? At least I have not even thought about it until Monday (day before yesterday) night. How in God's name do I know that they are adding animal derived ingredients in yogurt and cheese? May be some of you might already know it but I have been ignorant about it until recently. So those of you who don't know it already, here's the bitter truth; some of the brands of yogurt (especially low fat) contain gelatin and cheese contain rennet/rennin. I found it in the Veggie Boards forum.
I know that gelatin is derived from animal bones and it's an ingredient in marshmallows, Jello, so I don't buy those stuff. I also check for it in other processed goods. I also know that agar is the vegetarian substitute for gelatin. But not in my wildest dreams I would have guessed that gelatin was included in low fat yogurt as well. We regularly buy non fat/low fat yogurt and I don't know what I have been eating all these years. It doesn't stop with yogurt. Pork derived gelatin is added in some brands of BBQ flavored potato chips, in Altoids, Tic Tac and other mints too. Didn't I tell you that ignorance is bliss?
Another innocent product masquerading as vegetarian is cheese. We are not big cheese lovers. Actually I try to make pizzas and pastas without cheese. But we do enjoy a slice of cheese pizza occasionally and I have been getting cheese sticks and slices for my son for his snack. It has never occurred to me to check the ingredients list. Why would I, because I know that it's made with cow's milk and all vegetarian cookbooks mention the use of cheese. Guess what? some of the brands have rennet (it's an enzyme). To make it simple, rennet is derived from the stomach of dead calves. The actual process is really gross. If you have the guts to read it check it out here. If reading about rennet freaked you out, don't even think about finding out what carmine is.
I immediately ran to the kitchen to raid my fridge. Luckily, the yogurt I bought had agar and it was clearly mentioned in bold letters under the name of the yogurt "No Gelatin". It's been a month since we moved to Canada and I have been buying this brand of yogurt since then, but never once I have noticed the brightly colored bold letters. For those living in Canada, it's the Astro brand. I have to check the other brands the next time I go grocery shopping. I also checked the flavored yogurt (Irresistables) I had bought and was relieved to see it had locust bean gum. It's a vegetable gum extracted from the seeds of carob tree. I read in the same forum that Activia brand yogurt has gelatin but have to check it out for myself. I had also bought shredded part skim 3 cheese (for pizza) after a very long time, so that was the next thing I checked. I guess I was lucky this time because this brand had used microbial enzymes (which is neither animal derived nor vegetable derived but from microbes, which is considered vegetarian though). I also read in the same forum that (Update: some of) the cheese available in Trader's Joe and Whole Foods is vegetarian.
Apparently there is vegetable derived rennet as well which small producers use to make their specialty cheese. But I'm sure that if a company uses vegetable derived rennet they will be using it as a good marketing strategy to promote their product. So unless and otherwise it is specified clearly we wouldn't know the origin of the enzyme if simply rennet is printed in the ingredients list. For example the brand of cheese I bought this time was Kraft (3 cheese Pizza). They have microbial enzymes listed and I checked with other ingredients too and don't find anything animal derived, so I'm assuming it's vegetarian. (Update: The Kraft brand cheese I have mentioned also lists lipase in the ingredients. When searching for information about it I see that, like rennet, lipase can also be derived from animals or microbes. So unless we hear from Kraft about the origin of the lipase we cannot assume that it's vegetarian). Or the best bet is to contact Kraft/or any other company before using their products.
I went through Kraft Canada's website and found that the cheese powder they use in their Mac and Cheese dinner uses animal derived rennet. The source of rennet in the regular cheese was not mentioned clearly, so I have sent them an email. It's mentioned that they use pure Rennet, a natural substance for turning milk to curds and whey. Is pure vegetarian? we don't know that yet. The pack also mentions shredded natural cheese. Does natural mean vegetarian? We don't know that too. Wish these companies can have some symbol to denote their products are vegetarian, like they have a green circle in India.
In this day and age of processed foods which has a long list of unfamiliar chemical names it's very difficult (but possible) to identify if a particular ingredient is animal derived or not. Also we cannot go animal-free totally because some of the medication we take contains animal derived ingredients as well. For example, capsules are made with the very same animal derived gelatin. There are some vegetarian gelatin based capsules which clearly mention VegCaps in their pack. The multivitamins/vaccinations we take contains all type of animal/fish products.
So what's the purpose of this post then? To create little awareness so that some of us (vegetarians) who already don't check the ingredients while buying processed food will check it out hereafter!
Some links which might be helpful (I have not checked any of the products, so be sure to check it for yourself before buying)