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Cheese fraud alert: There may be wood in your Parmesan

Justina Huddleston is an editor and the head writer for TDmonthly Magazine. She has been a freelance writer for several years, though her real passion is cooking. You can see the recipes she creates on her vegan food blog, A Life of Litt...

Avoid this Parmesan cheese fraud by grating your own.

In truly saddening food news, the FDA has discovered that many brands of pre-grated Parmesan cheese may not actually contain any Parm at all.

In addition, they may contain a considerable amount of filler — including wood pulp. Yes, wood pulp. Yum?

Is there any betrayal worse than a cheese-based betrayal? I don't think so, and neither does the FDA. During testing, it recently found that even products labeled "100% Parmesan" often contained other cheeses, like cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella.

More: Parmesan garlic baked chicken wings

The worst of the worst came from Castle Cheese, a brand that supplied grated and shredded Parmesan cheese to Target and Associated Wholesale, a major retail wholesaler. Castle's "100% Parm" actually contained no Parmesan cheese at all. The FDA has brought a criminal case against the company, and its president is supposedly going to plead guilty, which could mean jail time and a hefty fine.

But they're not the only culprit. The Dairy Farmers of America found in its testing that only one-third of grated Parmesan cheese labels accurately represent the ingredients found within. This isn't just appalling as a consumer (Parm is pricey, and we should be able to count on getting what we're paying for) — it also seems really dangerous for people who may have food allergies. Undisclosed ingredients could pose a huge health hazard to those folks.

From a taste perspective, pre-shredded and pre-grated Parm that's been treated with cellulose, other fillers and anti-clumping agents doesn't melt as well, meaning your cacio e pepe using freshly grated Parm will be a lot smoother than it would be using pre-shredded. If you've ever tried one of those plasticky, dry Parmesan shreds on their own, right out of the container, it's not hard to imagine.

So what's a cheese lover to do?

1. Avoid pre-grated cheese.

First off, you may want to reconsider buying that pre-grated cheese. Even those that are mostly Parm often contain cellulose (aka wood pulp), an anti-caking ingredient I'm pretty sure no one wants to sprinkle on their pasta.

More: Crispy Parmesan parsnip fries

2. Buy solid blocks of cheese instead.

Buying a solid block of Parmesan instead may be more expensive up front, but per ounce you can save big. That's because when you by pre-grated cheese, you're paying extra for labor and production. Do the grating at home, and you save money and avoid unwanted additives.

For example, on Amazon Fresh, pre-shredded Saputo brand Parmesan cheese (which contains cellulose and natamycin, an anti-mold agent) costs $1.10 per ounce. But Saputo's Parmesan wedge, which contains no fillers or other chemicals, is just $0.58 per ounce. In this case, both contain 5 ounces of product, so you don't even have to shell out big bucks to buy it in bulk. Basically it's definitely worth doing a price comparison when you shop, because great deals on Parmesan can be found.

3. Consider alternative cheeses.

But if buying whole wedges of Parmesan proves to be too cost prohibitive, there are other cheeses that pack a similar umami punch that will boost your meals. First off, look for domestic Parmesan instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The latter is a protected designation of origin product that's imported from a specific region of Italy, making it more expensive.

If that's still a little much for your budget, look for Grana Padano, pecorino, Asiago or even a dry, aged cheddar. All these cheeses can cost less than Parmesan, and though the flavor profile of each is slightly different, they'll still add an extra "special something" when they're added to your meal.

Whatever option you choose, it's clear that you don't have to be stuck buying pre-grated Parmesan that's full of nasty stuff you don't want to feed yourself or your family.

More: A homemade, dairy-free (super-easy!) Parmesan alternative for vegans

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