Larry Olmsted
Larry Olmsted, Contributor
I travel to learn, eat, golf, and ski, but mostly for travel’s sake

11/19/2012 @ 7:56AM |4,048 views

Most Parmesan Cheeses In America Are Fake, Here's Why

It's easy to tell real Parmigiano-Reggiano when you can see a piece of the rind, because it is embossed with its name over and over.
My last column was full of praise for Parmigiano-Reggiano. This great cheese is worthy of all that praise: it is very natural, very healthy, very delicious and very consistent. It is wonderful by itself in chunks, shaved over or grated into foods, cooked or uncooked. It has been so good at doing so many things for so long – over 800 years – that it has earned the nickname in the dairy industry, “The King of Cheeses.”
But there is one big problem. As good as the cheese is, and as famous as it is, you rarely actually get to eat it – even when you think you are. The English translation of the cheese is Parmesan, and when you buy it in England you get Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s the law. The American translation is also Parmesan, but when you buy it here, you could be getting almost anything – except usually Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I noted in my last column that by law, Parmigiano-Reggiano is allowed to contain only three very simple ingredients: milk (produced in the Parma/Reggio region and less than 20 hours from cow to cheese), salt, and rennet (a natural enzyme from calf intestine). Three other ingredients, Cellulose Powder, Potassium Sorbate, and Cheese Cultures are not found in Parmigiano-Reggiano – they are completely illegal in its production. Yet all three are in Kraft 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese (I’m not sure if that means it is supposed to be 100% “parmesan” or simply 100% grated, which it certainly is). It’s far enough from the real thing that Kraft was legally forced to stop selling its cheese labeled Parmesan in Europe.
But I’m not trying to single out Kraft – I love their processed American Singles on burgers (as I recall this used to be called “American cheese food” because it couldn’t actually be labeled as “cheese,” but today they seem to dispensed with the word cheese altogether). In fact, in terms of consumer confusion Kraft probably plays a very small role, since its ubiquitous dry powdered “cheese” in green cardboard tubes is so far removed from actual Parmigiano-Reggiano that virtually no one could confuse the two.

An exhibit on imitation cheeses from other countries fills an entire room at the Parmigiano-Reggiano museum just outside of Parma, Italy.
The much bigger problem are the wedges of faux Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses sold even at higher end supermarkets, gourmet stores, cheese specific shops and the high-priced national retailers purporting 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, Parmesana, Parmabon, Real Parma, Parmezan, Parmezano and my all-time favorite, Permesansan (really). But most of the faux Parmigiano-Reggiano you will find here in the States is called simply Parmesan, and anyone who doubts for a second that its manufacturers are trading on the good name of the real stuff only has to consider that the 800 year old Parmigiano-Reggiano is named for its birthplace, Parma, an actual city. Are all these cheeses also named for Parma or merely a coincidence? Like Champagno or Michigen Cherries or real Vermoont Maple Syrup?
Regular readers will no doubt recall my extensive four-part series on the blatant misuse of the term Kobe Beef. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Kobe Beef producers have both copyrights and trademarks protecting different aspects of their name and brand in Japan, but the U.S., which has a long, rich history of pirating other nation’s proprietary foodstuffs, conveniently refuses to recognize these, leaving the playing field open for deception. Until about two months ago, no Japanese beef of any kind could be imported into this country at all, zero, meaning that every single menu with Kobe beef, Kobe burgers or anything Kobe was a bold faced deception – and usually charging sky high prices. Parmigiano-Reggiano does not have it this bad, as it is widely imported into this country, and its full Italian name is protected (but only fairly recently) here. But its name in our language is not, even though in 2008, European courts decreed that Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only hard cheese that can legally be called Parmesan, which makes a lot of sense given that that it is simply a translation of the same name. In fact, the use of Parmesan to refer specifically to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese predates the existence of the United States by about 250 years, when people in other regions of Italy began calling it Parmesano, which means “of or from Parma,” later shortened to Parmesan by the French, the first foreigners to gain a deep appreciation of the cheese’s virtues. Today almost nothing you can buy in a store here labeled Parmesan is “of or from Parma.”

More from the imitations exhibit at the Parmigiano-Reggiano museum.
Just as was the case with Kobe beef, the U.S. has chosen not to abide this EU legal determination, and the real Parmigiano-Reggiano continues to come under assault from pretenders marketing themselves with sound alike names (For much more background on the US government’s historical refusal to honor almost any foreign geographically indicated product, including Champagne, read my Kobe beef series, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 and my follow up on the change in status, here. And before you write in as so many did last time to “correct” me, I am not mistaken about non-French champagne. It remains perfectly legal to manufacture sparkling wine in this country and label it simply Champagne, not method champenoise, not New York Champagne, not California sparkling wine, but Champagne, just as they do in France. People are always surprised to learn this and say “but Champagne has to be made in France,” which is generally true throughout the civilized world except here. Go figure).
Most recently, I looked closely here at Forbes.com at the fake fish issue.Recent studies showing that in cities like LA and NY, restaurants and stores – as many as half of them – routinely substitute cheaper species of seafood for those ordered, or farmed for those sold as wild caught. Indeed, FDA regulations allow restaurants to sell something as “lobster” that is not even part of the lobster family. It’s bad enough for food shucksters to try to rip off US citizens without our own government actively helping them.
Ultimately it is you, the consumer who is the victim. It is not like you are being fed rat poison, but you may well be eating things you didn’t intend to eat and don’t consider healthy. After all, one of the major appeals of Parmigiano-Reggiano is its highly protected purity, plus its high levels of calcium, protein, many other vitamins – it is considered so healthy that is the cheese of choice in space, chosen as an especially good food for astronauts to eat by both the U.S. and Russian space programs. It contains nothing artificial, absolutely no additives and furthermore, the provenance of the milk used to make it is well known: it contains no antibiotics, no steroids and no growth hormones. It is always ultra-fresh for cheesemaking. Even what the cows eat is well documented, with no silage, ever, a diet consisting primarily of vegetation grown in the same carefully delineated Parmigiano-Reggiano region.
When people who care what they put into their bodies eat Parmigiano-Reggiano, they know exactly what they are putting in their bodies. This is often not the case with Parmesan, Parmigiana, Parmesano, or whatever you want to call it from myriad other producers not subject to these regulations. Many 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.” There is a similar saying attributed to high-level athletes looking for maximum performance: “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Besides the health and purity concerns, there is the more immediate taste and consistency issue. As I explained in detail in my last post, Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most reliable natural foods in terms of always tasting the same – and it tastes great. A combination of its uniform production process, strict quality control and testing by outside experts of every single wheel at the age of 12 months – which rejects a notable amount as less than perfect, assures this. If you read my piece and wondered why your cheese doesn’t taste as good as I describe, maybe your cheese is not actually Parmigiano-Reggiano (though it also is important that the real thing be cut relatively fresh from the wheel, wrapped carefully in plastic or cryovaced – the best way to buy wedges – and refrigerated. Once you unwrap an airtight wedge, don’t keep it more than few weeks).
As I also mentioned, Parmigiano-Reggiano has long been sought after by cooks and chefs because of the way it improves so many dishes. We always knew this to be the case, but did not know why until food science isolated the taste “umami,” which gives a huge flavor kick to many dishes. It turns out that Parmigiano-Reggiano contains more umami elements than almost any other cheese (or any food). So when a recipe calls for it and you use something less you are shooting the recipe in the foot. If you just slaved over an elaborate Italian recipe and spent a lot of money on great shrimp or handmade pasta or beautiful veal and yet it somehow underwhelmed you, ask yourself, did you skimp on the cheese? While you can buy pre-grated real Parmigiano-Reggiano at some gourmet stores, if you decided to save labor and buy grated, there is an even bigger chance you got the imitation stuff. The irony is that as gourmet foods go, Parmigiano-Reggiano is not especially expensive, and a little goes along way. Next time you cook, buy a slice of the real thing and grate it yourself – you and your guests will be happy you bothered, especially once they taste your food. You can find the real Parmigiano-Reggiano right alongside all the Argentinean and New Jersey “parmesan” at almost any sizable cheese counter, and you can tell by the signature pin-prick patterns, the words Parmigiano-Reggiano embossed all over every square inch of the rind, as shown in the accompanying photos.
It is important to look for these marks, because otherwise it can be very hard for American consumers to know what they are buying. For instance, Grana Padano is another Italian cheese that is protected as a distinct Geographic Indication by most of the civilized world and has its own PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Champagne, Burgundy, or Prosciutto di Parma this means that it can only be legally made in a certain place under specific rules with specific labeling requirements. Also considered a hard grating cheese, though less expensive, it competes with Parmigiano-Reggiano (though mainly on a price basis).  In the rest of the world they are known as two very different cheeses of different quality and price: but here, Amazon.com simplifies the whole thing by selling something called “Grana Padano Parmigiano Cheese,” sort of like hawking a “Honda Mercedes” car.
At the retail website igourmet.com they go so far as to carefully include a full-page lengthy explanation of what makes real Parmigiano-Reggiano real, explaining the quality control role of the Consortium and the cheese’s history, and they also explain that legally, “In the US, the phrase Parmesan Cheese can be used as a generic label for any hard Italian-style grating cheese made from cow’s milk.” After dutifully explaining what real Parmigiano-Reggiano is, they then go on to sell various Argentine and Wisconsin-made Parmesan cheeses. Interestingly, they suggest a novel new description for real Parmigiano-Reggiano – after centuries of establishing its name and reputation. They call it “authentic Parmesan.” Why would you buy anything but?
As a travel and food writer, I hear people all the time who are amazed at how good the simplest foods in Italy are – and they are right. But they also lament this fact, and one point they always bring up is how confounding it is that even the simplest pasta dishes can’t be successfully replicated at home. After all, they can buy many of the same pasta brands used in restaurants in Italy (believe it or not, it is not all handmade!) such as Barilla – also made in Parma, Italy’s epicurean capital, by the way. They can even make their own homemade sauce, maybe using high quality 100% pure Italian Pomi tomatoes, traceable from seed to package – also from Parma. They can use fresh basil from the farmer’s market. Yet even the simplest dish, such as pasta with tomato sauce doesn’t seem to taste like it does in Italy. Ever wonder why? Maybe it’s because in Italy there is only one kind of “Parmesan” cheese, and it isParmigiano-Reggiano, aka the “authentic Parmesan.” Don’t settle for anything less.
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(I have visted Parma and the producers of several PDO food products in the surrounding area, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Balsamic Vinegar Tradizionale di Modena on several occasions. My most recent visit this year was part of a longer trip to Italy, and my 3-day stay in the Parma area was hosted by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.)

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