Vegetarians may eat cheese, but not all cheeses are vegetarian! The problem for vegetarians arise from a material used during the manufacture of many hard cheeses, called rennet. Traditional rennet is derived from the intestine of slaughtered calves, and is used to make the cheese firm. Cream, or soft, cheeses are therefore usually suitable for vegetarians. Many manufacturers have now begun to use an alternative vegetable-derived rennet, making some hard cheeses suitable for vegetarians. These are usually well labelled, and can be found in all the major supermarkets and health food stores. Some small cheese producers also produce high quality products without the use of animal rennet, and can be found in good food markets or your local Farmers' Market.
Vegans do not eat cheese, so what is a vegan cheese? Vegan cheeses are non-dairy products which are designed to be used as a cheese substitute. They may be made from soya, rice or some other vegetable protein. They vary in flavour and suitability for different uses. Spreadable cheeses, hard cheeses and sliced cheese suitable for unwrapping and placing straight in a burger bun are all available, usually from health food stores. It is worth checking the ingredients carefully, as some cheeses which are labelled as dairy-free are not suitable for vegans, as they contain ingredients derived from casein, a protein obtained from milk!
Many vegan cheeses do not melt well, so their use in cooking is limited. However, new and improved products are arriving on the market all the time.
Whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process. This is turned into whey powder, which unfortunately is added to many processed foods, such as bread, margarine and biscuits. Sometimes the ingredients will specify that a "vegetarian whey powder" was used, which is derived from a vegetarian cheese, but any products containing whey powder are not suitable for vegans.