Parmesan Cheese With Wood Pulp? Study Finds Product Is Often Mislabeled As 100 Percent Cheese

Many popular parmesan cheese brands contain a wood pulp byproduct called cellulose, according to recent studies. Although the byproduct is tasteless and is safe for human consumption, consumers are being misled, as many of the products are labeled as containing “100 percent parmesan cheese.” The United States Food and Drug Administration determined some of the products do not contain any parmesan cheese at all.

It is not unusual for grated parmesan cheese to contain the wood pulp byproduct, as cellulose is a popular anticaking agent that also inhibits the growth of mold. However, Center for Dairy Research technologist Dean Sommer suggests cheese products should not contain more than 4 percent cellulose. Adding more than that amount will simply compromise the quality of the product.

Unfortunately, some companies are using cellulose as a filler in an attempt to save money.

To determine the percentage of wood pulp byproduct used in popular parmesan cheese brands, Bloomberg News purchased a variety of products and sent them to an independent laboratory for analysis.

The results of the research were specifically disturbing, as the products were labeled as containing “100 percent grated parmesan cheese.”

Although the Whole Foods brand contained only 0.3 percent cellulose, the byproduct was absent from the product’s label. Kraft’s grated parmesan cheese also contained less than the Center for Dairy Research’s maximum recommended amount. However, Wal-Mart’s brand contained nearly 8 percent cellulose and Jewel-Osco brand contained nearly 9 percent.

Representatives with Jewel-Osco, Kraft, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods said they stand behind the quality of their products. However, all four companies are investigating the claims.

Wal-Mart spokesman John Forrest and Whole Foods Market Inc. spokeswoman Blaire Kniffin both suggested the independent lab’s results were inaccurate.

According to FDA standards, products labeled as parmesan cheese must be produced using cow’s milk and must be processed in a specific way, which is true of all cheeses.

The FDA states parmesan and Reggiano cheeses are both “characterized by a granular texture and a hard and brittle rind.” The cheeses must grate readily and contain “not more than 32 percent of moisture.” The solids cannot contain “less than 32 percent of milkfat.” Both parmesan and Reggiano cheeses must be cured for at least 10 months.

In addition to processing, the FDA also imposes labeling standards. In the case of many products, including parmesan cheese, “each of the ingredients used in the food shall be declared on the label.”

In July 2013, the FDA discovered Castle Cheese, Inc. was using wood pulp as a filler in their “100 percent” grated parmesan and romano products. They also determined the products contained “a mixture of trimmings of various cheeses and other ingredients” which did not include parmesan or romano cheeses.

Arthur Schuman Inc. CEO Neal Schuman said filler, including wood pulp byproducts and starches, are used in an estimated 20 percent of grated Italian cheese products, including parmesan cheese.

In an interview with Journal Sentinel, Schuman said the companies are often motivated by “lower cost of ingredients and higher profit.” Unfortunately, the FDA has not set a specific amount of wood pulp byproducts allowed in grated parmesan cheese.

“The FDA sets the standards and rules for this, but for whatever reason they have left it somewhat vague… You can add the amount of anti-caking agent necessary to achieve the desired effect… From a consumer’s perspective, the product isn’t going to be as acceptable if you load it up with cellulose.”

The use of wood pulp byproducts in parmesan cheese is a specific concern for consumers, as the labels do not reflect the actual ingredients.

[Image via Dream 79/Shutterstock]