If anyone tells you that your food tastes wooden it isn’t usually considered a complement. Unless you’ve ventured out into some obscure molecular gastronomic territory and have decided to serve your guests “textures of tree bark”, timber tends to be best left well away from a plate.
However, despite the unappetizing connotations of sampling shrubbery, there’s a surprising foodstuff that relies on trees more than you might expect. Though they may be worlds apart, the cheese industry depends on wood.
It might seem strange that two substances that couldn’t look more different are so closely linked. Yet dozens of well known cheese manufacturers combine the two together in a highly unusual way for one very important reason. In order to give their product more body without resorting to costly and inefficient traditional processes, many manufacturers add cellulose - a pulpy by-product of the process used to turn wood into paper - to their cheese. The result is a bigger, more substantial cheese that can be made at a fraction of the price of a normal wheel and artificially enhanced to produce a similar taste.
While it might sound unappetising, cellulose is actually little more than tasteless filler. Despite the fact that it is produced from a highly mechanised and artificial process, it is completely harmless. Indeed, it is often also included in products outside of the cheese industry, such as bread and oil.
The difficulty comes when cellulose is used as an excuse for full blown food fraud. In recent years, one cheese in particular has found itself at the centre of a cellulose scandal that has rocked the industry to its core. Parmesan, in its pure form, is notoriously expensive and tricky to produce. Proper parmigiano reggiano can take more than a year to make and requires the practised hands of skilled artisans to get it right.
In order to avoid the inevitable overheads involved in producing the real thing, several large American cheese companies were found to be selling ‘parmesan’ that contained no parmesan at all. Instead, of the samples that were tested by investigators in 2016, many packets were found to be nothing more than cheddar, mozzarella, swiss and cellulose, all artificially flavoured to take on the taste of the Italian original. The worst offenders, Castle Cheese, Inc. and Target’s Market Pantry, were later taken to court over the con.
The key to whether your cheddar may be more chippings than cheese depends on the type of product you choose. Though the FDA state that there is no legal limit on the amount of cellulose allowed in cheese products, researchers have found that those that are pre-grated are most likely to contain high levels. This is because the pulp helps to prevent individual strands from sticking together. Therefore, if you really can’t stomach the idea of eating wood, ungrated blocks are the only way to go.
Though the 2016 cheese scandal affected how misleading products were labelled, cellulose’s status as an unregulated substance means that the industry are still able to include it wherever they like. So, while cheese will always continue to be delicious, it’s worth bearing in mind that there might be something more going on beneath the surface. You don’t want to be left barking up the wrong tree.