The Parmesan cheese/wood pulp plot is thickening. Using research from FDA investigations and its own independent tests, Bloomberg News, reported recently that many well-known Parmesan cheese brands use wood pulp and cellulose as low-cost fillers, even when they are advertised as "100% Parmesan Cheese." Bloomberg earlier reported it had store-bought grated cheese tested for wood-pulp content by an independent laboratory. Some packaged grated Parmesan cheese products contain too little cheese and too much cellulose, according to independent laboratory tests noted in the report.
Kraft Heinz cheese, labeled "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese," was found to have 3.8 percent cellulose. Between 2 and 4 percent is considered to be an "acceptable level," according to the Bloomberg story. Now, Kraft Heinz is among the companies named in a lawsuit for using cellulose filler in its "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese" product.
On February 27, an Illinois woman filed a class action lawsuit against Kraft Heinz in federal district court, claiming violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. Similar lawsuits were filed last week against Kraft Heinz in federal courts in New York, Missouri and California.
However, the plant fiber is legal in the U.S. and is an FDA approved anti-clumping ingredient for pre-grated cheese.
FDA recognizes cellulose as "safe additive," and it can be used at levels from 2 percent to 4 percent. Used throughout the food industry, cellulose gives foods like ice cream a creamier mouthfeel, and it's used in good quality grated cheeses, as well as not-so-great quality cheeses.
Walmart was also sued last week over cellulose, an anti-clumping agent derived from wood chips, in its grated Parmesan cheese.
Kraft Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen recently stated that cellulose was FDA-approved, and that the Kraft Heinz cheese was still within the levels of cellulose considered acceptable. "We are committed to the quality of our products, and we are also committed to listening to our consumers," Mullen said in an email to the Chicago Tribune last week. "We know the top complaint people have about grated Parmesan cheese is clumping of the cheese."
To be sure cheese is real Parmesan, the words "Parmigiano-Reggiano" should be printed on the rind. When shopping for pre-grated Parmesan, consumers are advised to look for American producers with good reputations. "Learn the names of reputable brands that offer pre-grated Parmesan, like Sartori and BelGioioso, which are both from Wisconsin, and Arthur Schuman, Inc. from New Jersey, which is the largest importer of hard Italian cheeses," says cheese expert Liz Thorpe, a consultant and author of The Cheese Chronicles, who is quoted in nbcnews.com. "Their products are widely available, their quality is really excellent, and you can count on their cheeses."
Thorpe says three different tiers of Parmesan quality exist: "product in a store's deli area; product in the dairy case; and Parmesan in the aisle are each different," says Thorpe. Small stores buying whole wheels of cheese can grate it onsite, and it won't have cellulose added because it doesn't need to have a four-, six- or eight-week shelf life, according to Thorpe. Likewise, small retailers can grate cheese for consumers.
Bloomberg says Americans are big fans of hard Italian cheeses. Last year, U.S. Parmesan output rose 11 percent from 2014 to around 336 million lbs., while Romano production grew 20 percent, to 54 million lbs., according to USDA data. Of all the most popular cheeses in this country, hard Italian versions are most likely to incorporate fillers because the cheese is expense. Parmesan wheels sit in curing rooms for months, losing moisture, which results in a smaller yield than with other cheeses. The difference in yield can mean millions of dollars to manufacturers.