Parmesan Cheese Contains Wood Pulp-Fiction!
Summary of eRumor:
Reports have run rampant that Parmesan cheese contains wood pulp.
Don’t believe headlines that claim wood pulp is added to Parmesan cheese.
It’s true that a food additive called cellulose that can be extracted from wood pulp is added to Parmesan cheese (and many processed foods), but reports about wood chips in cheese have gotten carried away.
First, lets take a look at what, exactly, cellulose is. It’s a long chain of linked sugar molecules found in all plant material, including wood. In wood, cellulose is found inside fibrous strands called lignin that give wood its strength. In order to be used as a food additive, cellulose has to be separated from the lignin through a chemical process.
John Coupland, a food scientist at Penn State, said cellulose can be extracted from virtually any plant material and used as a food additive Its source doesn’t really matter:
“A good way to think about it is to ask, ‘Would our food be any better or worse if the cellulose used was sourced from another plant?’ Cellulose is just a molecule, and probably one we want more of in our diets.”
Coupland’s point is that cellulose is a sugar molecule that has to be extracted from wood pulp (or another plant material) before it can be used as a food additive. So, wood pulp isn’t added to Parmesan cheese — a sugar molecule extracted from wood pulp is. Given that, it’s false to say that Parmesan cheese contains wood pulp.
Parmesan cheese, along with most processed foods, contains powdered cellulose often extracted from wood pulp. It’s used as an anti-caking agent to make dairy products creamy and prevent clumping, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The human body doesn’t digest or absorb cellulose. It can actually act as natural laxative before it’s passed from the body within a few days, the FDA reports:
Cellulose is a major constituent of many foods of plant origin. As such it is a significant portion of the diet, but is neither degraded nor absorbed. Cellulose derivatives considered in this report are virtually unabsorbed and little or no degradation of absorbed and little or no degradation of absorbable products occurs in the human digestive tract. In man, consumption of large amounts appears to have no effect other than providing dietary bulk, reducing the nutritive value of such foodstuffs and possibly exerting a laxative effect. However, the existence of certain data and the different categorization of cellulose and the several cellulose derivatives on the GRAS list suggest that the Select Committee should render a separate opinion on each substance considered in this report.
Cellulose is generally considered safe by the FDA. In cheese products, it can’t account for more than 2-4% of the total product.
And while thousands of processed foods contain cellulose, Parmesan cheese was singled out for allegedly containing “wood pulp” because cheese makers have been accused of adding more cellulose than allowed to hard cheese products.
The controversy goes back to 2012 when the FDA discovered that Castle Cheese in Pennsylvania had added more cellulose than allowed to its “100% natural Parmesan cheese,” as well as cheaper cheddar cheese, to save money. Michelle Myrter, the president and owner of Castle Cheese, faces criminal charges that carry a year of prison time and a $100,000 fine.
Then, in February 2016, Bloomberg Business reported that it had tested Parmesan cheese samples from big box stores and found some of them had cellulose levels exceeding FDA limits. The story, which was inaccurately headlined, “The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood,” reports:
Cellulose is a safe additive, and an acceptable level is 2 percent to 4 percent, according to Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin. Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent, according to test results. Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent.
So, it’s true that a sugar molecule found in wood pulp is added to processed foods like Parmesan cheese. It’s also true that sometimes it’s added to foods at higher levels than the FDA allows. But the rumor’s central claim that wood pulp is added to Parmesan cheese is false.