If you love cheese, the news that our beloved Parmesan — the kind that comes in the green-lidded shaker bottle — is really full of wood pulp is probably quite upsetting.
But before cheese lovers freak out, there is something they should know: it’s not quite as unhealthy and splintery as it sounds. The stuff in Parmesan isn’t exactly wood pulp, and it’s not going to kill you. In fact, it might just help you stay regular.
However, manufacturers have been lying to everyone. And that’s the problem.
The controversy began back in 2012, the Christian Science Monitor explained. That year, the Food And Drug Administration investigated a Castle factory in Pennsylvania and found that they didn’t use a stitch of Parmesan in their products.
In fact, the company’s shaker cheese was actually a concoction of Swiss, mozzarella, and white cheddar. And a little bit of cellulose, or wood pulp.
Enter Bloomberg Business. They dove into a very thorough investigation of the case and uncovered something unsettling to spaghetti-lovers everywhere: the store-bought stuff contained more cellulose than the label indicated and more than the government allowed, the Huffington Post reported.
Specifically, the investigation found that Wal-Mart’s 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese contained 7.8 percent cellulose, Jewel-Osco’s Essential Everyday included 8.8 percent, and Kraft had 3.8 percent.
And so the headlines announced to the world that everyone has been shaking wood pulp onto its pasta dishes for God knows how long. But that’s not exactly accurate.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) February 18, 2016
— Bloomberg Business (@business) February 16, 2016
Cellulose is often referred to as “wood pulp” because manufacturers extract the material from wood by grinding it. But this organic matter is all plants — and a tree is a plant. In fact, people eat it all the time: it’s in the cell walls of every plant and every single fruit and vegetable we eat. Its other name is dietary fiber.
And guess what? It’s not going to hurt anyone. In fact, the FDA lets companies put this filler in foods because it keeps the food from clumping, and it is completely natural and harmless. Manufacturers add the filler to their cheese because real Parmesan (the Italian kind) is expensive; the wheels dry up as they cure for months, shrink, and therefore provide less profit. Substitutes are added to offset that fact.
Nutrition expert Amy Bentley told the Guardian that cellulose could actually be healthy, because it’s a fiber and is an ingredient in laxative products and drinks. She likens Parmesan to Velveeta — everyone calls it cheese even though we know it really isn’t, but it’s still safe to eat (and yummy).
“It could possibly be healthy, but people don’t usually think that grated cheese is where their source of fiber is coming from. Could it be toxic? I don’t think so.”
So should everyone just calm their outrage? Well, Parmesan makers did lie about the content of so-called wood pulp in their products. And Castle did something that’s actually illegal: calling their product one thing when it was really another.
Of course, this is just the latest food-lie controversy. Processed foods have recently come under greater scrutiny from consumers — particularly Millennials — who want to know exactly what they’re eating. So far, we’ve learned that our wild salmon isn’t wild and probably isn’t salmon, our olive oil doesn’t contain just olives, and our vegetarian hot dogs are actually meat.
If you’d like to make sure that the Parmesan you’re eating is the real thing and not bulked up with wood pulp, buy the imported stuff from Italy. It’s not cheap, but thanks to strict regulations, it’s not lying.
[Image via Philip Lange/Shutterstock]