New Test Can Spot Parmesan Cheese Imposters

© OJO Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

By Gillie Houston Posted June 03, 2016

Researchers at the University of Parma have developed a test to determine whether or not a block of cheese is really their beloved Parmigiano.

Food fraudulence is on the rise, and a group of dairy-loving Italian scientists wants to protect their prized regional cheese. The growing problem of culinary counterfeits involves vegetable oil mascarading as olive oil, knockoff bottles of well-aged wines and blocks of faux Parmigiano-Reggiano that doesn't actually hail from the Parma region.

Now, researchers at the University of Parma have developed a test to determine whether or not a block of cheese is their beloved Parmesan or a mere imposter. As it turns out, the European Union takes its geographical cheese designations very seriously. According to the rules of Italy's official Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium, any cheese labeled as "Parmigiano Reggiano" or "parmesan" must be made with unpasteurized milk from local cows within a handful of provinces. Those cows never consume fermented feed, as they can contain bacteria that produces gas in cheese during the ripening stage, according to Chemical and Engineering News. However, these rules don't stop cheesy con artists from marketing less-superior cheeses as the real deal.

Study heads Augusta Caligiani and Gerardo Palla decided they couldn't stand these Parmesan fakes any longer, so they set out to create a foolproof method for discrediting imposters. The scientists found that the cheese produced from cows that were silage-fed contained two unusual "cyclopropane fatty acids" from the bacteria contained in the feed. By identifying whether or not these molecules were in the cheese, the Parma team was able to determine which cheeses were genuine.

Caligiani is hoping his research will become the new standard for authenticity in the Italian cheese industry. "It could help to strengthen the confidence of consumers that what they're buying is really Parmigiano Reggiano," the cheese devotee says. Despite all this, given the United States' lax laws on food labeling, pretty much anything can be labeled as "Parmesan" in American grocery stores—a major point of opposition that has become a block in negotiations over Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which aims to ease trade across international lines. When it comes to cheese, Italians don't mess around.

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