“Cheese Isn’t Supposed to be Wood”
Is there wood in your cheese? Well, it is a strange question to ask in the first place. But this is a critical food issue that needs to be in the spotlight. This Parmesan cheese controversy has everybody talking and wondering. So, Dr. Oz invites food journalist Mark Schatzker to tell us how Parmesan cheese in America is really made. He also reveals the difference between the authentic Parmigiana Reggiano from Italy and the grated Parmesan cheese that is sold in Supermarkets.
What’s Really In Parmesan Cheese?
Mark says, “How would you feel if I told you your favorite brand of Parmesan cheese was actually filled with wood chips? Probably not too good–because unless you’re a termite or a beaver, who wants to eat wood chips? But that’s exactly what a recent investigation by Bloomberg News found. Several major brands of Parmesan cheese, some even labeled 100% Parmesan, contained a filler called cellulose, which comes from wood. One brand had almost 9%.
That’s a lot of cellulose. Consumers were so upset, they’re now suing two major Parmesan producers. So how does the stuff we sprinkle on our spaghetti differ from the real deal? Authentic Parmesan cheese, which is made from milk, enzymes, cultures and salt, originally comes from Parma, Italy where it’s known as Parmigiano Reggiano, and can sell for up to $40 a pound. But we also make our own Parmesan here in the USA. And in its unprocessed state, there’s nothing wrong with it. Now the stuff on your supermarket shelf is also supposed to be real Parmesan–just pre-grated. So why would companies be loading their Parmesan with wood? Companies claim cellulose prevents the cheese from clumping. But is that the whole story?”
So he talked to Greg Blais of Eataly, the Italian food mecca that sells over 500 pounds of Parmigiano Reggiano every week. He asked Greg the real reason why there’s cellulose in people’s cheese. He answers, “To save money—that’s cheap filler.”
Given that these companies gain more for doing that, is it safe to eat cellulose, and does it affect the flavor? To these questions, Greg replies, “Probably not going to kill you. But I mean, why would you want to do it?… It’s not going to do anything for the flavor. It’s not going to taste like Parmigiano. It may have been traces of Parmigiano in it at one time. But it’s just not going to be the same as if you buy a chunk and grate it yourself.”
So, in the end, it all boils down to honesty and transparency. The consumers, including myself, deserve to know exactly what they are paying for, and what they are putting in their bodies. Now, are there in fact wood chips in your Parmesan? Mark explains that there are no actual wood chips in your cheese. There’s no sawdust in there. The offender is actually an ingredient called cellulose, and this is a substance in all plants. It is in fruits and vegetables. It gives structure to the cell wall. So nutritionally, you can think of it as bulk. It just passes through you. The reason why people say “wood chips” is because industrially, they get it from wood. Cellulose comes from wood. The reason why the cheese company is putting this stuff in cheese is to stop the grated cheese from clumping, so that when you shake it out, it actually shakes out. Cellulose actually has no taste. It may make the cheese clump less, but as a consumer, you actually want Parmesan cheese when you pay for it.
The FDA Approved Amount Of Cellulose
Dr. Oz’s team did some research and looked at the percentage of Parmesan cheese in 100% Parmesan cheese. So, if it’s 100% cheese, as printed on the label, you’d think it would be 100%. But if you look at the back of the label, the range is considerably big. Some manufacturers have 0.3% of cellulose, so you still get a huge amount of real Parmesan cheese. But then there are some out there with 3.8%, others have 7.8%, while one brand had up to 8.8%. So that’s a lot of stuff other than the Parmesan cheese. The question now is up to how much is it supposed to have or what is acceptable? Why put cellulose at all?
Mark goes on to say that what’s really interesting is that you see there’s a brand with 0.3%. That means you really don’t need that much cellulose to get the anti-clumping effect, so why do other brands have almost 10% in them? The obvious answer is cellulose is really cheap. If I am manufacturer and I can sell you cellulose and charge you for Parmesan cheese, then I am going to make a lot of money. Cellulose would make a lot of manufacturers happy.
The official FDA guideline allows cellulose to make up 2% to 4% of a product. That’s the amount they say and it’s fair and it’s generally recognized as safe. The word “safe” makes consumers feel good about it. But, if some manufacturers can add 9% and get away with it, then anyone else probably would as well.
However, another important reason why it’s a good issue to put a spotlight on is that Mark’s research shows that there are other problems as well. He says, “…this whole name, Parmesan, there’s a whole bunch of them–Parmesan, Parmigiana–Parmesana–it doesn’t mean anything. We looked at Parmesan cheeses, the pre-grated ones. We found other cheeses. They’re putting in white cheddar, they’re putting in mozzarella. Why? Because those cheeses are cheaper. So again, they’re just selling you filler. I even found one Parmesan cheese that had no Parmesan cheese in it at all. None. Zero.” These kinds of food fraud would just make any consumer angry, especially that they get away with it.
The Solution To The Cellulose Problem
Dr. Oz asks, “So the question then becomes, how do we know if the stuff that we’re buying is truly 100% Parmesan? Is there any shortcut you can give to consumers? It’s hard for me to fathom not trusting any food labels.”
Mark’s advice is that good food doesn’t come out of a plastic container with a flip-lid. The best thing to do is to actually buy real cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy is expensive. There is another Italian cheese that is great for grating, the Pecorino Romano. In addition, there are people in the US who make Parmesan-style cheeses that are good alternatives. The simplest option is to buy a chunk of real cheese so you can be sure that you are not buying cellulose. There are no fillers if it’s real block cheese because it is when they grate it that they add cellulose.
Grating your own cheese at home is very simple and actually fun. It is what it’s supposed to be. It also adds authenticity to your meal and the taste is really Parmesan. When it’s fresher, it has more flavor so you don’t need as much. People may look at the cheese block and say it’s expensive. But actually, you don’t need that much. You can grate only a little bit and it will bring your bowl of food to life.
Real Cheese Vs. Cheese Product
In this segment of the show, Mark reveals the result of his continuing investigation of the various cheeses we all so love. With all the processing that’s done to cheese these days, at what point is cheese not cheese anymore?
Americans love cheese so much that each year, every person can consume 25 pounds. But the sad news is a lot of what we think is cheese really is not. From those classic American slices that people layer onto sandwiches, to the mystery guck that comes out of a can, to the yellow stuff we drizzle onto nachos at the movie theater. We all call this things cheese but its real name is processed cheese food. And legally speaking, only 51% of it needs to be cheese.
Mark paid a visit to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in New York City to see how REAL cheese is produced. He talked to the founder, Kurt Dammeier. Kurt explains, “…real cheese starts with really good milk. And to that really good milk, we add cultures, enzymes, and heat. Then we separate the curds from the whey, press the curds, and age the cheese.” So, if processed cheese food is 51% real cheese, then the other 49% is not real food. That’s a big problem from a nutrition standpoint. Moreover, Investigative Journalist, Michael Moss, has researched all the processing that goes into processed cheese food. He reveals that manufacturers add 17 ingredients into their product to call it cheese. To name a few, they have sodium phosphate, sodium citrate, and protein concentrate. It’s alarming to see all the chemicals it takes to make a single slice of cheese. But, it’s not all bad news about cheese.
Mark explains, “I think the news about cheese is great. We think Americans eat about 25 pounds a year of cheese, and we think that cheese is one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic. But what’s really interesting is you look at European countries like Italy, Greece–famous for the Mediteranean diet, France. They eat way more cheese that we do, and they don’t have the same obesity problem. So what that’s telling us is that it’s possible for cheese to be part of a healthy diet. The difference is it’s got to be a real cheese. And to me, it all comes down to my favorite word, flavor. These real cheeses pack a lot of flavor. In processed cheese we think it’s cheap, it’s convenient, but there’s not much flavor. So you eat a lot more of it, and you get a lot more calories as a result.”
How To Spot A Processed Cheese
It’s actually okay to eat a lot of cheese, as long as it’s the right kind of cheese.
The first step is read the label and look for the word “cheese”. If it says “cheese product” or “cheese food”, then it’s something you don’t want to pay for. If still confused whether it’s the real one, turn the bottle over and look at the ingredients. Real cheese has simple ingredients, and they are milk, salts, enzymes and bacterial culture. But if you see that long ingredients’ list then you know it’s not real cheese– at least half of it isn’t.
How To Spot A Real Cheese
Check for something called A, A, F. They stand for Aroma, Appearance, and Flavor. People are generally afraid of real cheese because they think it smells funny, or they don’t know what it is. They also don’t know if they will like it. But there is an opportunity to learn. Try it. There are many amazing cheeses out there.
Dr. Oz shares a cheese buying guide on his website. Here is a glimpse of the cheeses that you need to have:
- Aged Gouda
- Block Cheddar
Also, check out Mark Schatzker’s book, “The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor”.
Dr. Oz gives this advice, “…know what you’re buying. Appreciate what you’re giving your family, and then make appropriate choices accordingly. Kids are late and you’re tired, give them the slice of cheese. But every single day, that should not be your standard, your go-to. Look for real cheese.” If you know your cheese well, you will understand that it’s supposed to be a real food, and not wood or a mixture of chemicals.