Pre-Ground Parmesan Cheese Isn’t Just Cheese

February 17, 2016

Yesterday, a Bloomberg Business investigation revealed that 100% ground Parmesan cheese might not be nearly 100% Parmesan.

In fact, 100% Parmesan cheese might not even be 100% cheese.

Acting on suspicions that "grated Parmesan suppliers have been mislabeling products by filling them with too much cellulose, a common anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp, or using cheaper cheddar, instead of real Romano," Bloomberg Business sent store-bought grated cheese to be tested for pulp content at an independent factory.

"Cellulose is a safe additive, and an acceptable level is 2 percent to 4 percent," but the Bloomberg report found that many cheeses exceeded these levels:

  • Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco: 8.8% cellulose
  • Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese: 7.8%
  • Whole Foods 365: 0.3%
  • Kraft: 3.8%

The article explains that,

According to the FDA’s report on Castle [Cheese, a Pennsylvania-based company with $19 million in sales in 2013], obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, “no parmesan cheese was used to manufacture” the Market Pantry brand 100% grated Parmesan Cheese, sold at Target Corp. stores, and Always Save Grated Parmesan Cheese and Best Choice 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, sold by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., which along with its subsidiaries supplies 3,400 retail stores in 30 states. Instead, there was a mixture of Swiss, mozzarella, white cheddar and cellulose.

Cheese companies may bolster ground Parmesan with cellulose and other cheeses for the same reason that spice companies may add pulverized olive pits to ground pepper: to save money and put out a cheaper product for restaurants and grocery stores sourcing cheese. What's more,

Parmesan wheels sit in curing rooms for months, losing moisture, which results in a smaller yield than other cheeses offer. While 100 pounds of milk might produce 10 pounds of cheddar, it makes only eight pounds of Parmesan. That two-pound difference means millions of dollars to manufacturers.

This is definitely 100% Parmesan. Photo by James Ransom

So what should you do if you want to make sure what you're buying is Parmesan cheese and not cellulose or a mash-up of other, less expensive cheeses?

  • First, don't skimp in the cheese aisle. Buy chunks of cheese, umambiguously labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano (which, unlike "Parmesan" is strictly regulated by its geographic origin), instead of the pre-ground stuff—and if you can see parts of the rind, even better. (Here's how to interpret it.)
  • If you're looking to save money on cheese, save the real Parmesan for special occasions (or places where the flavor of the cheese really comes through), and turn to breadcrumbs (yes, breadcrumbs) for less important uses.
  • When you do invest in Parmesan, be sure to use it all up—even the rind.

And if you do invest in real-deal Parmesan, make recipes that will do it justice:

Do you buy pre-ground Parmesan? How do you think it compares to the cheese chunks? Tell us in the comments!

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EL February 28, 2016
Most pre-ground cheeses also contain nystatin.
ChefJune February 17, 2016
I have not bought pre-ground cheese of any kind for decades. It's much too easy to shred/chop/grind it oneself, and that way I know what I'm getting. Besides, real Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the best tasting foods in the world. Why would I want to eat/serve/cook with sawdust? (Oh, and by the way, Pecorino is a totally different cheese from Parmigiano Reggiano. Also delicious, but not even from the same animal!
Smaug February 17, 2016
I would hope that your feelings would be shared by all on a culinary web site, but people do buy the strangest things.