Your Parmesan Cheese is Probably Sawdust. Here’s How to Find the Real Stuff

manchego cheese on a cutting board
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder
Honest Abe

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The first time I had Parmesan cheese, I was 26 years old.

No, I wasn’t raised by wolves. In fact, my parents fed me a lot of pasta when I was growing up.

I’m just a victim of America’s lax labelling laws — and more than likely, you are, too.

Let me explain.

Your Cheese Might Be an Imposter. Here’s Why

“Parmigiano-Reggiano” — that is, the original, real Parmesan cheese, as it’s called in its native Italian — “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).”

So writes Larry Olmsted at Forbes, where he begins to chronicle the rampant food fraudulence he fully explores in his (fascinating) book, “Real Food/Fake Food.”

Overseas, foods must meet stringent guidelines to earn the privilege of printing place-derived names like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Champagne on their labels.

But it’s not just about location. The government also controls the intricate details of how these products are made — sometimes down to the species of cattle allowed to produce the milk or, as Olmsted points out, the maximum distance between the cows and the creamery.

These guidelines are based on an item’s history, concretizing the way things have been done for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.

This means that when you purchase these foods in their native lands, you know a whole lot about the product you’re getting. The name is a heuristic for quality.

But here in the U.S., companies can get away with using ancient names without following ancient practices. Our labeling laws favor the manufacturer, erring on the side of marketability over clarity. This is why many oft-used labeling terms, like “natural,” actually mean nothing.

In “Real Food/Fake Food,” Olmsted reveals how such labeling loopholes have robbed Americans of experiencing the best versions of a host of seemingly common foods, including honey, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and more.

Case in point: Perhaps the most familiar version of “Parmesan” cheese in America, Kraft’s pre-grated, green-can iteration.

This cheese includes additives, like cellulose powder and potassium sorbate, which are “completely illegal” in the production of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, as Olmsted points out.

The result? A whole country that has no idea what real Parmesan is supposed to taste like.

“It’s far enough from the real thing that Kraft was legally forced to stop selling its cheese labeled Parmesan in Europe.”

Why Does Getting the Real Thing Matter?

So, why am I going on about other countries’ labeling laws? What on earth is the difference between cheese from cows in France and cheese from cows in Wisconsin?

It’s not about the place, so much, as it is about the process. And about honesty in marketing. And getting what you pay for.

Here’s why you should care if your cheese is an imposter.

1. The Real Thing Is a Lot Better

If you genuinely believe Parmesan is sawdust in a green can or know Swiss cheese only as the plasticy, hole-filled block sliced at the deli, you are missing out on an experience I firmly believe to be a birthright: eating real cheese.

Trust me on this one. It is so good. SO GOOD.

2. It Might Also Be a Lot Better for You

Maybe you’re satisfied with your Kraft American singles and non-refrigerated “cheese food.”

And goodness knows, these processed, domestic products are a whole lot cheaper than shopping the gourmet cheese bin. Why spoil yourself and ruin a good thing for your pocketbook?

Well, if you care about the health of your body as well as your bank account, there is another motivator.

For one thing, that stuff you sprinkle on your spaghetti may have actual wood shavings in it. (Hey, at least it tastes like what it is.)

When you buy a genuine product, you know exactly what’s in it and how it’s made.

And that means you likely won’t end up accidentally ingesting foreign objects, fillers or questionable synthetic chemicals.

3. You Get What You’re Paying for

Buying so-so cheese because it’s cheap and good enough is one thing, and there’s no shame in it. If you make that decision intentionally and know what you’re getting, I’m 100% on board. This is The Penny Hoarder, after all.

The tricky thing — and the one that bothers me — is when you’re willing to pay more for “the good stuff” and end up, through no fault of your own, shelling out extra bucks on what turns out to be a fraud.

If you’re going to spend the extra cheddar on fancy cheese, you should be able to feel confident that you’re getting the authentic article.

Otherwise, it’s a total waste — to say nothing of the fact it’s false advertising, plain and simple.

You’re spending money for a product that’s promising you an experience you don’t even know you’re missing. You should be outraged!

How to Tell if These Gourmet Cheeses Are Authentic

So, ready to learn how to identify the real deal next time you’re in the market for some dairy?

Let’s dig in.

Parmigiano-Reggiano

parmesan cheese next to a block of feta cheese

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

I start with Parmigiano-Reggiano because this cheese was my own real-food wakeup call. And what a wakeup!

As it turns out, Parmigiano-Reggiano has nothing to do with the crap I put on my penne growing up. But even the hunk of solid, plastic-wrapped “Parmesan” you get at the market might pale in comparison to the real deal.

Here’s how to get the actual stuff.

What to look for:

  • Parmigiano-Reggiano is spelled out on the rind. That’s right, authentic versions of this cheese are a dead giveaway, as every single wheel created in Parma, Italy has its name emblazoned into the rind like this one.

    Depending on the size of the wedge you purchase, you may not be able to see either word in its entirety… but if the rind spells out a different name, or is unmarked entirely, you can rest assured it’s not real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano are frequent substitutes and good cheeses, but neither has earned authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano’s moniker, “The King of Cheeses.”

Mozzarella

sliced mozzarella on a cutting board

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

First things first: It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get real buffalo mozzarella, or Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, in an American supermarket.

Historically, mozzarella, which is more acidic and has a totally different flavor profile than what you’re used to in your lasagna, is made from actual buffalo milk in the marshes between Rome and Naples. It’s also best to consume it fresh and close to the source.

But you can still do better than the shredded stuff you find in pizza Lunchables.

What to look for:

  • Avoid low-moisture, part-skim, 2% and other qualifications. These recipe changes are made to increase the product’s shelf life. This sounds like a good thing, but you’re more likely to get lunch box string cheese than soft, pillowy mozzarella deliciousness.

Manchego

manchego cheese on a cutting board

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

If you’ve so much as walked by a tapas restaurant in the last decade, you know that this Spanish cheese is having a serious moment.

And for good reason. With flavor characteristics ranging from toasted nuts to caramel and butterscotch, Manchego is as complex and intriguing as it is downright delicious. Not to mention the fact it’s my personal favorite.

It’s also one of the most commonly faked types of cheeses in the world, according to Deli Market News. Here’s how to get your hands on the real stuff.

What to look for:

  • Real Manchego is only made in La Mancha, Spain, from the milk of the Manchega sheep that roam there. The very first thing you need to do is check the label to see where it came from. If it isn’t sheep-milk cheese from La Mancha, it isn’t Manchego.
  • The rind ranges from yellow/beige to brown and has a distinctive herringbone pattern. This apparently dates back to when shepherds aged the cheeses in grass baskets by shepherds hundreds of years ago. Pretty neat!
  • Your cheese should resemble a wedge cut from a wheel, as that’s how these cheeses are exclusively manufactured in their place of origin. The wheels have a PDO stamp, but it’s unlikely you’ll see it on your pre-cut portion.

Feta

feta cheese crumbled on a cutting board

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

I know so many people who feel pretty ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about feta cheese. If I’d only ever eaten the supermarket variety, I’d understand completely.

Authentic feta is a whole different ball game. It’s shockingly versatile and delicious enough to eat all on its own, or maybe with a simple drizzle of (real) olive oil — which is exactly how the Greeks do it.

What to look for:

  • Real feta is not made with cow’s milk. Traditional, authentic Greek fetas are made primarily with sheep’s milk and perhaps some goat’s milk mixed in.
  • It isn’t sold pre-crumbled. At least the good stuff usually isn’t. Instead, look for a solid block or even a rounded wedge, which indicates barrel aging. The cheese’s surface should be dotted with a few holes, but it shouldn’t be falling apart.

Emmenthaler (Swiss)

sliced swiss cheese pictured on a cutting board

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Getting real Swiss cheese is complicated and confusing, and no surprise. We’ve taken an entire country’s long and storied cheese history and boiled it down to a single word denoting a not-anywhere-near-as-good imitation product — namely, mild, white, domestically-made “Swiss” cheese filled with holes.

In fact, the vast majority of cheeses made in Switzerland don’t have holes in them. The notable exception is Emmentaler, which our “Swiss” cheese is based on but doesn’t hold a candle to.

If you want a real taste of Alpine bliss, you have to do some investigating.

What to look for:

  • Scope out cheeses that are actually from Switzerland without “Swiss” on the label. If something is generically branded as “Swiss” cheese, it is likely anything but.

    Instead, look for the place of origin to see if the cheese is imported from Switzerland. Swiss cheeses come in all sorts of varieties — some common (and delicious) options include Gruyere, raclette and Appenzeller.

    Of course, there’s the danger that you’ll run into something marked Gruyere that’s actually a domestic Gruyere-style cheese. I think it’s worth the extra few bucks for the genuine, imported article, but even the Wisconsin imitation is bound to be better than the stuff you’re used to putting on your ham sandwich.

Brie and Camembert

brie cheese pictured on a cutting board

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Unfortunately, you’re probably not getting real French Brie or Camembert without buying a plane ticket.

That’s because each of these cheeses are traditionally made with raw, unpasteurized milk, and the FDA is not a fan. It’s had a guideline in place since 1949 that restricts the import of raw milk products aged less than 60 days — a standard that looks like it’s about to go up, and which most of these soft cheeses don’t meet.

Producers all over the world make Brie- and Camembert-style cheeses out of pasteurized milk, however, and some of it is better than others. Although you might need to fly to France for the authentic flavor, here’s what you can do to at least ensure you get the right texture.

What to look for:

  • Soft cheeses should be soft, but not too soft. Don’t be afraid to give your round a squeeze. It should have a little give without being — perish the thought — squishy.
  • Buy a whole round, not a wedge. This will ensure that the creamy, gooey center has dried out as little as possible, whether the cheese is an import or a domestic product.

Phew! Who knew shopping for cheese was so complicated?

Fortunately, you’ve made it to the fun and (all too) easy part: Actually eating it.

Bon appetit!

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, VinePair, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

Honest Abe

Disclosure:

Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.