Wood cellulose doesn’t cause health concerns
Wood cellulose is a natural product made from wood fiber, says cheese technologist, Dean Sommer, at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin. It has generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status from the FDA and is accepted by the FDA to use as an anti-caking, anti-clumping ingredient in grated Parmesan cheese.
However, Sommer pointed out to DairyReporter wood cellulose is not used by the actual Parmesan cheese makers, but by the converters that buy the bulk Parmesan cheese, grind it, partially dry it, and package it in the shaker cans.
“It is absolutely necessary to add some anti-caking agent to the grated cheese to prevent clumping in the container,” Sommer told DR.
As for the cellulose itself, “There are no health concerns,” he said. “However, the FDA does not allow what they would consider excessive addition of any anti-caking agent to grated Parmesan cheese for use as filler.”
Reaction is over the top
The impression of wood pulp being added to Parmesan cheese is wrong, says Sommer.
"[It's] definitely an over reaction. Cellulose is dietary fiber. In that respect it is good for you. Cellulose is found in many plant materials and as such is routinely consumed by consumers and is beneficial as dietary fiber.
"It is perfectly safe for consumption and is actually a valuable source of dietary fiber. Grated Parmesan cheese with added cellulose as an anti-caking agent is entirely safe to consume."
What did the FDA actually say?
According to the federal regulation 21CFR133.165, “Parmesan cheese must contain no more than 32% of moisture; its solids must contain not less than 32% of milkfat… This standard also allows cheesemakers to add certain safe and suitable optional ingredients, such as anti-caking agents and spices and flavorings. Certain anti-caking agents approved for use as direct food additives are permitted at up to 2% by weight in foods.”
Dairy processing specialist at Cornell University, Carl Moody, said that the article published by Bloomberg, which commissioned the initial test, did not mention or cite the Code of Federal Regulations that establishes the standards related to grated cheese (Title 21 Part 133.146) and Parmesan cheese (Title 21 Part 133.165).
Sommer said that the FDA does not state a specific amount of 2 to 4% for anti-caking.
"The FDA has language that says something to the effect of safe and suitable quantities to achieve the necessary anti-caking effect. There are a number of anti-caking agents that can be used, cellulose is probably the most popular one. That is the range I mentioned that in my experience is the amount typically (but not always) needed to achieve the desired anti-caking effect," he told DR.
After Jewel-Osco’s Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese reportedly contains 8.8% cellulose, the retail chain recalled all the products from its 185 stores on February 17, according to Jewel-Osco’s spokesperson, Mary Frances Trucco.
“Our supplier of the Parmesan cheese is aware of the issue and we look forward to learning more about their investigation,” Trucco told DairyReporter.
Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese was tested and found to include 8.8% cellulose.
However, Wal-Mart’s spokesperson, John Forrest Ales, told DR that Bloomberg did not disclose how they did the test, and the test result might be inaccurate due to small sample size.
Shredded Parmesan cheese market continues to grow
Moody told DR that the recent cellulose test result won’t stop consumers from purchasing Parmesan cheese, because it is convenient for them to sprinkle the cheese onto their pizzas and pasta.
Sommer added that he believes the popularity of Parmesan cheese will continue to grow, and that more consumers may trend toward shredded Parmesan cheese because of its positive flavor and functionality (melting) attributes.
“I think shaker can Parmesan will continue to be a popular product because of its convenience (shelf stable), and ease of use,” he said. “The majority of companies today that make and market grated Parmesan cheese will continue to enjoy strong sales.”