Unbeknownst to many, Parmesan fraud is a growing issue in today’s cheese market (despite how jokey that sounds). According to the FDA, Parmesan cheese is being cut more and more often with a variety of things that aren’t Parmesan cheese, namely other cheeses and…wood pulp.
I had an idea of what wood pulp was, but I wasn’t entirely sure, so I googled it. Turns out, it’s exactly what you would expect it to be: pieces of wood ground down so finely that it becomes pulpy. In order to make maximum profits using minimum resources, several companies (both proven guilty and allegedly guilty) used the pulp replacement to save on ingredients.
According to the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, Parmesan cheese (or more properly known as Parmigiano-Reggiano when referring to the actual thing) is allowed to have only three ingredients in it: milk, rennet (in order to harden the cheese), and salt. Small enzyme particles of plant and animal origins are allowed to make their way into the cheese during the fermentation process, but combined can only weigh .01 percent or less of the total weight of the milk used. Additionally, creators of the cheese can add food coloring if they would like, as long as every coloring used, no matter how little, is listed in the ingredients.
A large number of companies have come under fire lately for their misleading products, including big competitors like Kraft. Three ingredients that are absolutely not allowed in the cheese are cellulose, potassium sorbate and cheese culture, yet all three were found in Kraft’s Grated Parmesan Cheese, on top of the wood pulp. While a slap in the face like this might fly in America, the land of gracious rebranding, the cheese is an affront to Europeans, who live close enough to Parma, Italy, to try the real deal. Thus, the European FDA forbade Kraft from selling their cheese in Europe, or at the very least, selling it under the guise of Parmesan.
This “wood in your cheese” news comes as an unwelcome surprise to Parmesan-lovers for two reasons, the first reason being good ol’ fashioned deceit. Nobody enjoys having the wool pulled over their eyes or feeling tricked. So finding out through third party sources that the cheese you love so much has been parading around as something else this entire time is sure to incite some pretty unhappy, if not furious, emotions.
Second, we are now eating things in which we are unsure of the ignredients. We as consumers are not particularly happy when we eat something that isn’t what it is advertised to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like anybody is being fed bleach or cyanide or anything like that; it’s not anything life-threatening. But for people with very specific allergies, or people that are sticklers for health, a discovery like this is easily enough to dissuade them from ever purchasing the product made by that company again.
One talented Forbes Magazine contributor, Larry Olmstead, created an in-depth article pointing out all the issues with Parmesan cheese made in America, pointing out that tricky American labels are leading to misrepresentation strong enough to fool consumers. He uses the skewed labeling for Kraft’s 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, pointing out his confusion by saying, “I’m not sure if that means it is supposed to be 100% “parmesan” or simply 100% grated, which it certainly is.” Many other companies that sell the grated and bottled cheese also bank on slick and devious labeling, using ambiguous words and phrases like “all natural” and “100% real.” Anything can be considered 100% real if it’s a tangible object, can’t it? And words like “natural” have implied meanings, but nothing concrete, which is especially useful for companies looking to spin the true nature of their ingredients.
Sources: Forbes, Bloomberg, Grubstreet