Is your Parmesan the real thing or is it a fake cheese?: Internet Scambusters #712
When you eat Parmesan cheese, it's highly likely you're not eating the real thing at all -- but an imitation product or even a totally fake cheese.
This could mean you're not getting what you pay for or it could even carry some health risks, as we explain in this week's issue.
We also have a warning about phony fundraisers who claim to be campaigning against cyberbullying.
Let's get started...
Are You Eating Fake Cheese?
Normally, we'd say a fake is a fake -- right? -- but not in the case of fake cheese.
There are actually two types of fake cheese.
The first is the name given to a legitimate product that we might think of as a cheese but is actually made from palm oil and other ingredients.
Many consumers may be unaware they're not eating cheese when they eat these products. We think of them as cheese, but if you look at the labels, they often don't use the word at all -- either in the ingredients or in the actual product name.
The second is a product that pretends to be a certain type of cheese -- Parmesan is the most common case in point -- when actually it's not.
Or the makers may claim it's "100 percent" Parmesan (or other cheese) when really it has all sorts of additives.
It's this second type of fake cheese we're concerned with this week.
For example, in a sensational court case earlier this year, an American company was accused of passing off a mix of Swiss, Havarti, mozzarella and white cheddar cheeses plus a big helping of cellulose as 100 percent Parmesan.
The case, and an investigation by business news outfit Bloomberg, led to a spate of alarming news reports claiming multiple samples of supposed Parmesan were adulterated with wood pulp.
In fact, it seems more likely that the samples contained cellulose (also a plant product), which is permitted in food products, subject to guidance from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
Cellulose can serve a useful purpose, adding bulk and fiber, which is not digestible, and preventing clumping. It's also a tasteless filler used in diet foods and some ice creams.
However, according to the Center for Dairy Research, the permissible content in cheese should be in the range of 2% to 4%, whereas some of the Bloomberg samples, many on sale at leading grocery stores, had 8% or even more, usually not stated on the label.
Bloomberg also quoted U.S Italian hard cheese importer Arthur Schuman as saying 40% of the product we sprinkle on our pizzas and pasta in restaurants isn't cheese at all.
That's not all. Whereas, in Europe, cheese can only be described as "Parmesan" if it is produced by makers in Reggio Emilia, Italy, the same requirement doesn't apply in the United States.
In Europe, Parmigiano-Romano, as it's called, can only contain milk, salt and rennet. The quantity and quality of these ingredients is rigidly controlled and cellulose is not permitted. Nor are other additives commonly found in other products, such as potassium sorbate and "cheese cultures."
Since 2008, this is the only cheese that can be labeled "Parmesan" in European stores.
Again according to Bloomberg, the region's cheesemakers have launched a campaign to try to stop U.S. companies from using the names of their cheeses, often in Italian-looking packaging.
It's called Parmesan, they say, but actually tastes nothing like the real thing.
In fact, one cheese, albeit perfectly edible, masquerading as another, is at the real root of the problem.
This unlabeled substitution is already sweeping Russia and Asia, with one report suggesting 78% of cheese sold in Russia is probably counterfeit and that most cheeses sold in Asia as being "European" are actually made in China.
But the scam is also evident in Europe and North America.
Swiss cheesemakers, for example, estimate that 10 percent of products labeled "Emmental" on supermarket shelves is fake.
According to business magazine Forbes, in the U.S.: "Wedges of faux Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses (are being) sold even at higher end supermarkets, gourmet stores, cheese specific shops and the high-priced national retailers purporting to sell purer, better-for-you foods.
"Many of these imitators are produced here in the U.S. or South America, especially Argentina, and come with names such as Parmesan, Parmigiana, Parmesan, Parmabon, Real Parma, Parmezan, Parmezano."
Is any of this important?
First, it's plain wrong that consumers should be misled into buying products that are not genuine. Even if those products are edible, we may end up paying a lot more than we should for cheap substitutes.
Plus, they simply don't taste as good as the real thing.
More importantly, there's a potential health issue.
In the court case referred to, the FDA allegedly also found evidence of Listeria in the fake cheese factory operated by the now-defunct owner.
As the author of the Forbes article above puts it: "Many (substitutes) have laundry lists of chemicals and additives and even if they list only the same three ingredients, there is no knowing what's in the milk used, where it came from, how old it is, or how the cheese is actually made.
"As we are increasingly discovering in the form of a global health epidemic linked heavily to diet, there is a lot of truth to the old saying 'You are what you eat.'"
It's hard to identify a solution to this growing problem.
For some, you can reduce the risk of being misled or downright scammed by:
- Being aware that some so-called "processed" cheese is not cheese at all.
- Checking the food labels for country of origin and ingredients.
- Buying from reputable retailers.
None of this is a cast iron guarantee though. But at least there's a reliable solution for Parmesan:
If you want the real thing, you should always buy a wedge from a traditional Parmesan "wheel," so you can see part of the "Parmigiano-Reggiano" name burned onto its rind in a dotted pattern.
And then, if you must, grate it yourself.
Hey presto ... no more fake cheese!
Alert of the Week
Cyberbullying -- victimizing of people via social media websites -- is a loathsome crime that any decent person would strongly oppose.
But don't let your strong opposition trick you into donating to a telemarketer claiming he or she is collecting funds to tackle the issue. You need to be 100 percent sure they are who they say they are.
After all, there's plenty you can do without giving money -- see, for example, StopBulling.gov.
But if you do want to donate, why not choose a legitimate kids' or anti-crime organization such as the non-profit National Crime Prevention Council.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.