The Parmesan Cheese in Your Pantry May Contain Unsafe Levels of Wood
Drop the fork: Your penne with Parm might actually be full of wood. Yep, Italian grandmothers everywhere are officially rolling in their graves.
According to a report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some brands of Parmesan cheese contain an anti-clumping additive that is made of wood pulp. The investigation began in 2012, when FDA agents paid a visit to Pennsylvania cheese makers Castle Cheese, Inc. acting on a tip. They found that the cheesemongers were cutting their “100 percent real” cheese with cheap fillers like wood pulp and passing it off as high-quality Parmesan.
Hard Italian cheeses like Parmesan are difficult (read: expensive) to make. Because they take so long to age, they lose more moisture, and therefore produce fewer pounds of cheese to sell at the end of the process. To make up for the shortfall, many cheese-makers add cheaper types of cellulose (a long chain of molecules)—like wood pulp—to bulk up their batch.
According to the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) in Madison, Wisconsin, cellulose is an inherently safe additive. But the problem is, it’s gotten out of control. According to the CDR, two to four percent is a generally accepted safe level of the additive, but many brands are far exceeding that measure.
And per a new Bloomberg News investigation of the worst cheese culprits, many of our everyday brands are guilty—in fact, some grated cheeses sold at supermarkets have less than 40 percent actual cheese product in them.
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Bloomberg found that Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese from Jewel-Osco tested at 8.8 percent cellulose, Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese rang in at 7.8 percent, and Kraft contained 3.8 percent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Whole Foods 365 brand tested the best, although it still contained 0.3 percent cellulose.
Since cellulose is not a serious health hazard, these cheese capers have largely been overlooked by the FDA in lieu of bigger problems. But since the Castle Cheese catastrophe of 2012, they’re not playing around. Castle’s president is set to plead guilty to criminal charges this month and could face up to a year in prison and a 0,000 fine.
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