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According to a report released by Bloomberg Business earlier this week, major cheese manufacturers are cutting costs by bulking up their packages of "100 percent grated Parmesan cheese" with cellulose—a food-grade product often made from wood pulp—instead of actual cheese.
Angry? You probably should be. Take Castle Cheese Inc., a company called out by the FDA: they were passing their wood pulp–laced cheese off as 100% Parmesan—a mislabeling issue punishable by law.
Scared for your health? That might be an overreaction. The use of cellulose in commercial food production is nothing new—in fact, it's been commonplace since the 80s. And, as Toronto-based registered dietitian Abby Langer told Huffington Post, this practice is not necessarily as much of a health concern as some are making it out to be.
Cellulose comes from the cell walls of plants, she argues, making it a plant-based fibre. Its purpose in food is to act as a thickener or anti-clumping agent, and it's most often found in lower-fat products, such as light salad dressings or low-fat burgers, as it improves the texture of food without affecting the nutritional profile.
"I think it's just because 'wood in your food' sounds gross that people are freaking out about it," she told Huffington Post. "But why not freak out about the chemicals in the same food that are not some harmless fibre derived from plants?"
But Wisconsin-based food scientist Mark Johnson of the Center for Dairy Research claims that while cellulose itself is safe for consumption to a certain extent, there's "a temptation to [use] more than necessary," reports Global News.
As per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the acceptable level of cellulose in food is two to four percent. However, when Bloomberg Business performed their own independent laboratory tests, samples of multiple major U.S. brands of grated cheese contained cellulose levels as high as 7.8 percent.
The FDA report also found that Castle Cheese Inc.'s 100% grated Parmesan cheese sold at Target in the U.S. did not actually contain Parmesan. Instead, the product was a mixture of Swiss, mozzarella, cheddar and cellulose. The company has since filed for bankruptcy and the president is facing criminal charges.
Whether or not these higher-than-acceptable levels are present in cheese sold here in Canada is yet to be determined—though two of the U.S. brands that were found to be using cellulose in excess (Walmart and Kraft) are major purveyors of cheese in Canada.
In the meantime, there's a pretty easy workaround if you're concerned about your cheese not being 100% Parmesan: buy bricks of it and grate it yourself.
Check out our Parmesan Twists with Fresh Marinara Sauce.