You wouldn’t normally sprinkle sawdust on your pizza. But what if it’s on the packaged grated cheese you use when you top off the sauce?
That doesn’t sound particularly appealing. But it turns out, it’s pretty common. Lots of companieseven some of the organic onessell pre-grated cheese in a plastic bag or tub that’s been dusted with something called “cellulose” to help keep the cheese dry and fluffy so it won’t clump together.
That cellulose, which is basically plant fiber, can be derivedfrom different kinds of plant materials, but the most common is wood pulp. Manufacturers grind up the wood, extract the cellulosic fibersthe saw dust, if you willand add it to the cheese.
This isn’t a particularly new practice. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on using cellulose to keep cheese loose in part because they say that the fiber passes through our stomachs and intestines without being absorbed.
However, now the FDA is investigating manufacturers who claim their product is, for example, “100% Parmesan Cheese” because it probably contains wood-based cellulose.
“Organic Valley does use cellulose in our shredded cheeses,” Elizabeth Horton of Organic Valley, told National Public Radio. “It’s a pretty standard anti-caking agent” that helps prevent the bits of cheese from clumping together. So does Lucerne. I have a package of grated Lucerne Parmesan cheese in my refrigerator, and the words “powdered cellulose” are clearly listed with the other ingredients.
Jon Bodner, who works for a company that provides cellulose to food companies, says that the cellulose isn’t really saw dust. But he acknowledges that the industry is looking for cellulose sources that come from plant foods, like corn stalks, leaves and husks or even sugar beets, rather than wood.
One problem that could arise in the event that non-wood plant crops are used to produce cellulose is that they could come from GMO plants. Consumers don’t seem to want to consume GMO-tainted foods, so adding GMO-derived cellulose to the cheese would probably not be too popular.
At least on my packaged cheese, the powdered cellulose was the second-to-last ingredient on the package, so the amount of dust is not huge.
But all things considered, I’d much prefer to eat just cheese without any cellulose added.
It’s easy enough to grate my own cheese when I need it, either using a metal hand-held grater or the grating attachment on my food processor.
There are threeother benefits of grating my own cheese.
First, it will be fresher. A regular brick of cheese usually expires long before packaged cheese. Why not grate your own for a fresher, more delicious taste?
Second, I can avoid the excess plastic packaging that grated cheese comes in if I grate my own. At my grocery store, grated cheese comes either in a plastic bag or in a plastic tub. Either way, that’s more plastic to have to throw away and add to the growing problem of plastic build up in the environment.
Third, buying non-grated cheese is usually cheaper than buying the grated stuff because you’re not paying for the packaging or the energy and labor costs of grating the cheese at a factory.
Here on out, I plan to buy bricks of cheese at my deli counter. Have them wrap them in butcher paper or even put them in a container I bring from home. That way I still get fresh cheese, but skip the plastic trash.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.
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