You may have seen a lot of hype about there being wood pulp in Parmesan.
We're here to tell you: IT'S ALL GOING TO BE OKAY. Confused? We'll break it down for you:
Wait... So, what's in my cheese??
The offender here is cellulose. Not actual pieces of wood.
You probably haven't heard this word since eighth grade science, but cellulose is a natural component of all plants' cell walls and is in every fruit or vegetable you eat. Cellulose is made up of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. It's most commonly referred to as a dietary fiber and it usually passes through your GI tract without even being absorbed.
It's often considered "wood pulp" because manufacturers grind up wood to extract cellulose from. Wood is from trees, trees are plants, plants have cellulose. Only in a world of clicky headline escalation would the logical fallacy that cellulose is the same as wood pulp carry any weight.
That doesn't sound so bad, but why is it in my cheese?
The FDA lets companies add cellulose to foods like shredded cheese because it prevents clumping and is harmless, organic matter. The official guideline allows cellulose to make up 2 to 4 percent of a product.
How much is in the cheese I'm eating?
This has been the hot topic of conversation for years and it's hit a resurgence because the folks at Bloomberg Business conducted an extremely thorough study on store-bought Parmesan cheeses. In the study, they found a higher percentage of cellulose in some cheeses than indicated on the products' labels -- and a higher percentage than allowed by the government:
"Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent, according to test results. Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent."
Is this the worst crime against Parmesan?
No! The FDA found that a Pennsylvania-based company, Castle Cheese, Inc. was selling Parmesan cheese that didn't just contain too much cellulose, it didn't contain any actual Parmesan.
The knock-off Parmesan cheese was made up of other “trimmings of various cheeses” and distributed to thousands of grocery stores across the U.S. While that's not necessarily unhealthy, it's dishonest and illegal.
Now, the president of Castle Cheese, Inc., Michelle Myrter, has been charged in federal court for lying about the cheese's quality and the company has filed for bankruptcy, according to BuzzFeed.
So does this mean I can chow down on cheese with no worries?
Sort of. Grabbing cheese that has less than the "acceptable" 2-4% cellulose is probably in your best interest for now -- use Bloomberg's list as a reference because, as previously mentioned, you won't find the cellulose content on a label anywhere.
Eating cheese with more than the acceptable amount of cellulose isn't the worst thing for you, but it's good to know what you're putting in your body and that what you're paying for isn't exactly what it might be labeled as.
What if I’m super weirded out by cellulose... Is there any cheese I can buy?
Yes! But it's not cheap. Parmesan that's imported from Italy is 100 percent pure, thanks to strict regulations in the country.
Domestic parm output has risen 11 percent since 2014 and it may soon have to change its labels, making it easier to tell the difference between imported and domestic cheese. The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a trade group based in Rome, is cracking down on U.S. manufacturers for sullying their good name. They asked the European Union to protect its manufacturers against U.S. companies that were using the names of their cheeses and Italian flags on their packaging.
Until then, feel free to cut the cheese - we promise you won't choke on splinters.
*Editors Note: If you've ever wondered why Parmesan is capitalized, it's because it's named after the area that produces it. Only cheese produced in certain provinces may be labelled "Parmigiano-Reggiano." The U.S. uses "Parmesan" because it can legally be used for cheeses similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano, but the full Italian name refers to authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
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