That Parmesan You’re Eating Might Be More Wood Than Cheese

“Fake food” isn’t just Play-Doh spaghetti or mud pies. No, it turns out a growing percentage of U.S. foods are being passed off as the genuine article when in reality they’re nothing but cheap knockoffs.

Many everyday food items are not as they seem. Everything from olive oil, parmesan cheese, and yes, even lobster are often imitations rather than the real thing. That cheese you’re eating? Turns out you might be munching on wood.

In 2012 the FDA made a surprise visit to Castle Cheese Inc.’s cheese factory in Pennsylvania. They found that the cheese producer was cutting their parmesan with cellulose, an anti-clumping agent created from wood pulp, and selling it as authentic parmesan.

The FDA allows between 2 percent to 4 percent of cellulose in parmesan cheese. But according to Bloomberg News, which tested various store brands, Jewel-Osco’s Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese contained almost 9 percent cellulose, Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese from Wal-Mart had almost 8 percent, and even Whole Foods brand, which didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient, tested for 0.3 percent cellulose.

In the U.S. anywhere from 70 percent to 80 percent of Italian olive oil is counterfeit.

What’s worse, upon further investigation the FDA found “no parmesan cheese was used to manufacture” Castle Cheese’s Market Pantry brand 100% grated Parmesan Cheese. That’s right, zero parmesan in 100% parmesan cheese.

Cheese is big business in The States. In 2014 alone, Americans consumed around 336 million pounds of Parmesan. With those sort of numbers, it makes sense producers try to cut corners to lower costs. Even a small increase in cellulose percentage can mean millions for manufacturers.

Not-So-Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil fairs no better. In fact, chances are the olive oil you’re using is fake. In the U.S. anywhere from 70 percent to 80 percent of Italian olive oil is counterfeit.

“Much of the extra virgin Italian olive oil flooding the world’s market shelves is neither Italian, nor virgin,” says the New York Times.

Surprisingly, labeling bottles “Extra Virgin” or “Imported from Italy’ is completely legal even if the oil is neither.

not-so-virgin olive oil


So if it’s not extra virgin olive oil, what is it? Odds are the olive oil sitting on store shelves is mixed with soybean and cheap vegetable oil or made with poor quality olives either improperly processed or stored. So much for that real, Italian flavor.

If you think Italian markets would be spared the cheap stuff, you’d be wrong. Overseas it’s estimated 50 percent of olive oils sitting on Italian supermarket shelves are fake.

“The olive oil sold in supermarkets should meet the established standards. And that is not being upheld,” says David Neuman, CEO of Gaea North America.

So who’s to blame for this flood of wood cheese and soybean olive oil? Turns out it’s us, the consumers. It appears that most shoppers have become accustomed to the fake food and addicted to the low prices. If consumers keep buying the knockoffs with little complaint, why would grocery stores spend more on the real deal?

“Although consumers are embarrassed to admit it, they are supporting the situation,” Neuman says. “The chain stores keep buying because it sells and everybody has become addicted to the low prices.”