Published May 21, 2012
So, you’re visiting Iceland for the first time, and you want to experience as much of Iceland’s culture as possible, which means trying some classic Icelandic edibles. If you’re vegetarian, you’ll skip some traditional dishes like fish and lamb. But there’s always skyr and Icelandic cheese to keep your protein intake high… or is there?
Are you familiar with rennet? It’s an enzyme used in dairy products to make milk coagulate. It is typically produced in the stomachs of young mammals, which use it for the same purpose, to digest their mother’s milk. As this rennet is taken from the stomachs of dead animals, it is not vegetarian, and renders any product that is made with it non-vegetarian.
As a vegetarian, you might know this and try to avoid such products—though vegetarian rennet is sometimes used as well. The problem is that the package does not have to state whether the rennet that is used is vegetarian or made with animal enzymes (at least here in Iceland). The ingredient to look for in Iceland is “ostahleypir,” but if you don’t get in touch with the producers themselves, you won’t know for sure whether your favourite cheese is vegetarian or not.
So which Icelandic products are actually made with rennet?
Skyr is a popular dairy product invented by accident hundreds of years ago. It’s sold in all kinds of flavours, from vanilla to caramel. Although it appears to be yoghurt, it is actually a type of soft cheese and tastes a bit sour. As it is very low in fat it is excellent for a healthy diet. It also contains more protein than regular yoghurt as the water in the milk is strained off.
For hundreds of years skyr has been made with rennet. The largest dairy producer, Mjólkursamsalan (MS), does not use a coagulant in their production of skyr (which includes skyr.is).
However, the second largest producer of skyr, KEA, still produces it this way. So, if you really want to stick to your vegetarian diet, don’t eat KEA skyr.
The second dairy product that is produced with rennet on a large scale is cheese. You can find an abundance of various cheeses made in Iceland in the refrigerated aisle at any grocery store—from gouda to mozzarella to cheddar.
We checked with MS, which confirmed that they are using animal rennet for most of their cheeses: “The ones that are without animal rennet are our cream cheeses, but they are without rennet or ostahleypir altogether.” In fact, even their sour cream is made with rennet, and, even more surprisingly, it also contains gelatine.
So if you love cheese, but want to scrap rennet, you should avoid any product made with ostahleypir. To keep your diet vegetarian, you might have to turn to organic producers, such as Biobú, which tend not to use animal rennet. But still, always check before consuming.