Scandal stank up the cheese industry earlier this year when news emerged that products labeled as Parmesan cheese were not all they claimed to be. Now, a technique for unmasking impostors explained in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry could put an end to these Parmesan pretenders.
In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acted on a tip that Pennsylvania cheese factory, Castle Cheese Inc., was loading their "100 percent real Parmesan" with filler. The company mixed their product with cheaper cheeses, like cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella, and even cellulose derived from wood pulp, the FDA determined.
Following up on the FDA's findings, Bloomberg News in February published their own investigation into additional store-bought Parmesan cheese and found similar additives. Some products labeled "100 percent Parmesan" in fact contained none at all.
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Parmesan cheese is a food long misrepresented. Even without the added filler, true Parmesan-Reggiano cheese doesn't often find its way to American consumers. Instead, unless purchased from a specialty importer, products bearing the word Parmesan are usually just imitators.
The reason behind the ruse is simple: money. Traditional Parmesan Reggiano, produced in only a handful of Italian provinces, sells for far more than generic varieties.
How can cheese enthusiasts tell the difference? For the connoisseur with a background in chemistry and access to a lab, the process for screening samples for potential adulteration is quick and easy, according to the researchers.
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To produce authentic Parmesan, cheesemakers must use milk from cows who have not fed on silage, a fermented cereal used in animal feed. Using a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) method, the researchers analyzed more than 300 samples of a variety of cheeses, including Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Fontina, Comté and Gruyère. The team discovered that milk from cows that consumed silage contained a specific group of lipids known as cyclopropane fatty acids.
Imitation cheese isn't the only luxury food item potentially duping consumers. The wine market is also rife with fakes. In a sales environment where a Bordeaux or burgundy bottled in a certain year can command thousands of dollars, the incentive is there for counterfeiters. A 2013 industry estimate suggested that fake wine accounts for about 20 percent of international sales.
While the wine industry has taken steps to fight forgeries, such as using high-tech labels or special seals, there are other ways of detecting counterfeits as well. One such method relies on measuring carbon-14 levels in the wine. During the late 1940s through the 1960s, atomic explosions dramatically increased the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere, which is then absorbed by grapes. Measuring the ratio of c-14 to carbon-12 can help verify at least whether a vintage from that era is genuine.
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A food market tainted with forgeries is as much an issue for producers as it is for consumers. Industry can take steps to ensure that what goes to market is the genuine article, but consumers must also use discretion when considering a cheaper alternative to a premium product.