Everything you think you know about parmesan cheese is a lie

If you thought parmesan cheese was vegetarian, it's time to think again.

The pasta-lovers staple actually contains an enzyme produced in calves' stomachs called rennet, BuzzFeed reported. When calves are killed for meat, rennet is harvested from their stomachs.

Rennet is key to producing hard cheeses such as parmesan, Gruyere, and manchego, as it allows the dairy to clump together and harden.

Fortunately for vegetarians, many parmesan cheeses in the US now use a nontraditional rennet, made using fermentation or microbes. Cabot Cheese, for example, only uses microbial-based enzymes in producing its cheeses and is vegetarian approved.

Unfortunately, it is often unclear if cheeses use enzymes harvested from the stomachs of calves, or if they are in fact vegetarian. The label of Kraft Parmesan Cheese, for example, simply says the cheese contains "enzymes." Kraft didn't respond to Business Insider's attempt to clarify if the cheese was vegetarian or not.

Italy Parmesan CheeseREUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

The vegetarian question is really just scratching the surface of parmesan cheese's modern identity crisis.

In Europe, what cheese can be labeled as Parmigiano-Reggiano is strictly regulated. Parmigiano-Reggiano can only contain milk produced in a certain part of Italy, using a time-intensive and exact method. In the US, however, generic parmesan cheeses made with different types of milk and different ingredients is both legal and common.

"These legal imitations won't harm anyone physically," Kevin Loria wrote in Tech Insider. "But they do affect the reputation and livelihood of the people who dedicate their lives to making these foods. Perhaps even more importantly, the bland imitations of food created largely by our system of mass-production are largely flavorless."

Related: Best and worst cheeses for you

The Worst Cheeses For Your Health
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The Worst Cheeses For Your Health

When eaten in moderation, cheese can be a part of a healthy diet. Many brands are rolling out low-fat and low-sodium versions, but are these alternatives better than the originals? Read on to discover the best and worst types of cheeses for your health.

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Low-fat cheese

Cheese is a major source of saturated fat, but some types of cheese are naturally low in fat like Parmesan, grated Romano and part-skim mozzarella. Consumers can also buy low-fat or fat-free varieties of cheese made from reduced-fat or skim milk. Low-fat options of cottage, ricotta, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, Colby, Meunster, provolone, Mexican blend or American exist on the market.

How do the experts weigh in on these low-fat alternatives?

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Fat equals flavor

Lower fat versions have a reputation for tasting milder, feeling rubbery in texture and cooking differently than their full-fat counterparts, and one cheese expert has likened the taste of low-fat cheese to that of “an eraser”. In addition, many brands replace fat with fillers to restore cheese’s creamy texture.

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Should I buy Full-fat or Low-fat?

You may need to shop around and experiment to find a great tasting, low-fat cheese that fits your needs. Otherwise, stick to your full-fat favorites, but consume them in moderation or use them to accent dishes.

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Avoid High-Fat Cheese

Try to consume high-fat cheese sparingly. Cheeses to watch out for include goat cheese, feta cheese and blue cheese. One ounce of semi-soft goat cheese has 6 grams of saturated fat, which makes up approximately 29% of the daily value.

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Low-Sodium Cheese

Salt helps transform liquid milk into cheese and determines the cheese’s taste, texture, food safety and shelf life. Since it is integral to the cheese-making process, cheese must contain some salt.

When you’re shopping for low-sodium cheese, one helpful tip is to choose softer, less-aged cheese, which tends to have less salt.

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Try These Low-Sodium Cheeses

Varieties like Swiss, Monterey Jack, ricotta, and Port de Salut are naturally low in sodium. There are also lower sodium varieties of Colby-Jack, provolone, Muenster, mozzarella and Cheddar on the market.

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Avoid these High-Sodium Cheeses

In general, processed cheese like American, blue cheese, Roquefort cheese, parmesan cheese, feta cheese and cottage cheese contain high amounts of sodium. One ounce of Roquefort cheese contains about 507 mg of sodium, which is more than one-third of the recommended average daily sodium intake level. One ounce of grated parmesan cheese contains 428 mg of sodium.

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Low-Lactose Cheese

According to the National Dairy Council, natural cheeses like Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, mozzarella and Swiss are great sources of calcium for individuals with lactose intolerance because most of the lactose is removed during the cheese-making process when the curds are separated from the whey.

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Low-Lactose Cheese

In general, more mature, hard cheese has lower lactose content. This is because natural bacteria Lactobacillus turn lactose into easily digestible lactic acid during the aging process.

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Cheese is High in Calcium

While cheese may be high in saturated fat and sodium, it is also an excellent source of essential nutrients like calcium. In fact, cheese is the second highest source of dietary calcium in the American diet.

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High Calcium Cheese

If you’re looking to add more calcium in your diet, the National Dairy Council recommends Swiss, Cheddar, ricotta, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, Gouda, queso blanco, Mexican blend and Colby. Half a cup of part-skim ricotta cheese provides 337 mg of calcium, which is about one-third of the daily-recommended calcium intake for adults ages 19 to 50!

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Is American cheese bad for you?

Many people turn their noses up at American cheese for being "unhealthy" and "not real cheese". American cheese is technically referred to as a "cheese product" because it contains additives like whey, emulsifiers and preservatives. As far as nutrition, one ounce of processed American cheese has 110 calories (80 of them from fat), 6 grams of saturated fat and 180 mg of sodium and provides 30% of the recommended daily amount of calcium and 10% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. American cheese may not be the healthiest choice, but, like other cheese, it can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in small quantities.

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Is Cheese Linked to Cancer?

In a new study, scientists from the Kaiser Permanente research center in California looked at questionnaires filled out by women with breast cancer. The questionnaires covered diet and the most commonly consumed dairy products included cheese, ice cream, yogurt, lattes and hot chocolate. According to the Daily Mail, those women who ate even one portion of one of these popular dairy products a day were 50 percent more likely to die from breast cancer within 12 years.

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Do Americans Eat Too Much Cheese?

According to SFGate, the average person in the U.S. eats 30 pounds of cheese each year, three times more than the average person ate 40 years ago. They report, "a variety of health problems are also on the rise, and studies have linked multiple diseases with the consumption of cheese." Heart attacks, caused by the fatty nature of cheese, are one of these frightening health risks.

What Cheese Attracts Mosquitos?

According to the American Mosquito Control Foundation, Limburger cheese has been found to attract mosquitos, so always avoid consuming this cheese before a camp out or hike.

Can Cheese Protect Teeth?

A study in the journal General Dentistry reports that consuming cheese and other dairy products may prevent dental cavities. Eating cheese raised the mouth's pH levels, which lowers the chance of developing cavities. Cheese also sticks to tooth enamel for further protection from acid.

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These issues came to a head in a 2016 scandal, when Bloomberg tested several brands of grated parmesan and found that all of the cheeses contained an anti-clumping additive made of wood pulp. While the additive, cellulose, is legal and safe, customers freaked out when they realized their 100% parmesan cheese contained something other than cheese.

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