How to Get Real Parmesan in the Wake of Icky Cheese Revelations

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That Parm you sprinkle on your pasta could contain a wood pulp product. Here's what you need to know when cheese shopping.

I imagine that many Americans were shocked this week to find out that the Parmesan cheese they’ve been sprinkling on their pasta dishes — which is often labeled as 100 percent Parmesan cheese — may be infused with a wood pulp product and, in some cases, contains no Parmesan at all.

According to Bloomberg, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered that some grated Parmesan cheeses have been mislabeled because they contain too much cellulose filler — a complex carbohydrate extracted from wood pulp that’s a common and legal anti-clumping agent food makers use — or they’re actually made from cheaper cheeses, such as cheddar and mozzarella.

Cheese fraud may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but if it makes you feel any better, some of the alleged perpetrators are facing legal action.

Michelle Myrter, president and co-owner of Pennsylvania-based Castle Cheese Inc., is expected to plead guilty this month to criminal charges accusing her company of mislabeling its Parmesan and Romano cheese items, Bloomberg reports.

“Specifically, your product labels declare that the products are Parmesan cheese or Romano cheese, but they are in fact a mixture of trimmings of various cheeses and other ingredients,” the FDA told the company in a 2013 warning letter. “In addition, your Parmesan cheese products do not contain any Parmesan cheese.”

Myrter is facing a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Liz Thorpe, a cheese expert and author of the book “The Cheese Chronicles,” told NBC News that following these tips should help consumers make sure they’re purchasing actual Parmesan cheese and not a mix of cheap cheese or wood pulp-based fillers:

  • Skip the pre-grated Parm. It’s easy and quick to buy a wheel of cheese and grate or crumble it yourself. Plus, “it will taste so much better and you’ll use less cheese because its flavor is so much better,” Thorpe explains.
  • Check the cheese rind. You want to look for the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Thorpe explains: “The first thing to know is that Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano and American Parmesan cheese aren’t the same thing. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a legally protected designation of origin that’s used in Europe only for Italian cheese. The beauty of this cheese is that you can always know that you’re getting the real thing because the name ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’ is burned onto its rind in an unmistakable dotted pattern.”
  • If you really want pre-grated, know the good brands. Thorpe recommends Sartori, BelGioioso and Arthur Schuman Inc. “Their products are widely available, their quality is really excellent and you can count on their cheeses,” she said.
  • Know the tiers of quality. If you want the best quality Parmesan, shop for it in the deli, Thorpe explains. The dairy case is your second best option, and the green cans in the aisle are a last resort. “Cheese is a perishable product and you want your cheese to require refrigeration,” Thorpe says. “If you’re buying one that is not refrigerated, there’s a reason. A grated product that’s shelf stable — that’s the lowest [quality] product that you could be buying.”

Were you surprised to learn that some pre-grated Parmesan cheese products contain no actual Parm? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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