Is This Really Vegetarian?

9425806_lIf you talk to most people about their diet they’re likely to tell you the foods they don’t eat, if they have special dietary restrictions, or if they refrain from eating animal products (vegan or vegetarian). When it comes to vegetarians there’s a lot of wiggle room. Some people eat eggs, milk, and cheese (Lacto-Ovo), some allow the addition of fish (Pescatarian), some are flexible with what they eat (Flexitarian), and some people just stay away from eating certain animals. Whatever the diet, there are some interesting products in our food system that vegetarians may not realize are animal derived.

Lipase is an enzyme that is responsible for increasing the speed of numerous biochemical and metabolic reactions. One such reaction, enzymatic coagulation of milk, is commonly used to make cheese. Okay, no big deal, it’s just an enzyme … right? Yes, it is just an enzyme, but for those who are concerned about ingesting animals or animal byproducts the source of lipase may be of some concern. Lipase can be obtained from animal, plant, and microbial (bacteria or fungi) sources, but it’s not always easy to tell which source has been used to make your cheese. In fact, most manufacturers will simply list enzymes on the label and leave the guessing to the consumer. Of course if you’ve never heard of lipase you’d never suspect an animal product sneaking into your cheese. If you don’t consume cheese in the first place than you have nothing to worry about. It’s not that the enzyme is a health concern it’s just a hidden animal source.

Where exactly on the animal is this lipase coming from? It actually depends on the cheese and the milk from which the cheese is going to be made. Different animal parts contain lipase and these different parts have unique purposes. For example, lipase obtained from the pre-gastric tissue of a calf tend to produce buttery notes in cheese. Mmmm buttery. Or wait, gross, pre-gastric tissue? Yep, and lamb and kid pre-gastric tissue can create strong peppery notes. Lipase can also be taken from pancreatic glands. Why are they using this? Well, in addition to creating the flavors mentioned above, lipase helps increase ripening time and enhances the flavor of cheese. Lipase can also help to mimic the flavors of cheese produced from raw milk. Safe, cheap, and easy . . . and just a little bit gross. For those of you that love cheese, remember that there are other non-animal sources of lipase. It may just take a little research to locate the enzyme source, something that MenuTrinfo can help with.

Another hidden animal product is bone char, also known as “natural charcoal”. Bone char is used in some sugar processing to remove color from raw cane sugar, but technology has created vegan alternatives. Don’t worry, you wouldn’t be eating bones, your sugar would have just been processed with the bone char and after processing the “natural charcoal” is removed. Raw sugar and beet sugar do not use bone char so if that’s your sugar of choice, you’re safe. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer or MenuTrinfo to determine if “natural charcoal” is used to process your sugar.

L. cysteine is a non-essential amino acid that can be synthesized in the liver. Because it can speed up some reactions in the body, people consider it to be semi-essential. L. cysteine is used as a dough conditioner and can extend shelf life of baked goods. Okay, so this one seems reasonable, it helps dough and it’s an amino acid. Just like lipase, the source is where the problem lies, at least for vegetarians and vegans. This amino acid can be obtained from duck feathers, hog hair, and even human hair! I mean really, what’s a loaf of bread without some animal hair or feathers? There are synthetic alternatives, but they are not the predominant source for L. cysteine.

When you think about these hidden animal sources lurking in our food it makes you wonder what else might be making its way into the things we consume. It’s also very easy to imagine full feathers, bones, and animal tissue instead of thinking about the true size of these products. Enzymes and amino acids are tiny and most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a synthetic or animal derived version. There are also rules and regulations for these ingredients. However, if these products cause you to worry, MenuTrinfo can help locate these hidden animal sources and help you select different products for your vegan and vegetarian guests.

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