You are shredding a block of cheese when sheer exhaustion sets in from the copious energy expelled by sliding the cheese up and down the grater. “I can’t live like this,” you tell yourself as you slip away for much needed recovery nap. When you return two hours later, you notice that the cheese has hardened and sticks together. Sure, pre shredded cheese takes virtually no effort and it doesn’t cake, either. It’s true, but here are four reason you should take the extra three minutes to grate your own cheese.
- Pre-Shredded cheese has some “interesting” ingredients.
Here is what is in a block of cheddar cheese:
- pasteurized milk
- annatto color (if it is yellow—cheddar cheese is actually naturally white)
Compare that to packaged, pre-shredded cheese:
- cheddar cheese (pasturized milk, salt, color, enzymes) as well as…
- potato starch
- cellulose powder
- calcium sulfate added to prevent caking
One of the most controversial ingredients in that list is cellulose. What is cellulose? It is a natural component found in all plant cell walls. Sounds harmless enough, maybe even nutritious, right? The catch is, manufacturers commonly get this derivative from wood pulp, which, if you ask me, is pretty unappetizing. That’s why your cheese has a light powder on it. That isn’t cheese dust from shredding fairies. Sorry to disappoint.
Cellulose is used to prevent caking, provide a creamier texture to many low-fat dairy products, or add fiber to foods. It gained its popularity in the 1970s and has become a very common additive to many dairy items and other grocery store staples. Powdered cellulose is made by cooking raw plant fiber—usually wood—in various chemicals to separate the cellulose, and then purified. According to this article by Food Renegade, “Modified versions go through extra processing such as exposing them to acid to further break down the fiber. The FDA allots up to 4% of any product to be cellulose.” While it is weird to eat wood pulp with your cheese, it is likely safe (or at least the FDA says it is).
The real hot button with cellulose, is that many companies have recently come under fire for using over the FDA allotted amount of cellulose in shredded cheese products. Castle Cheese Inc. was just ousted for its “100% parmesan cheese” product that literally contained no parmesan cheese, but instead used less expensive cheese products and an abundance of fillers. This company makes the Market Pantry 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese you find at Target Corp. stores.
As mentioned, the safe level of cellulose in a product is 2-4%. Bloomberg News, in an effort to highlight this common fraud, tested a number of cheese products, and found that many well exceeded—even doubled—the FDA allotment of cellulose. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered at 7.8%. Jewel-Oslo had 8.8% cellulose in their Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan. So yeah, wood pulp is pretty gross, but the consumer fraud is even grosser. You pay a premium for pre-shredded cheese, and it turns out that you aren’t even getting a quality product.
Then there is natamycin. It is an anti-mold solution that is sprayed onto cheese to prevent molding and increase shelf life. It is needed in pre-shredded cheese because there is so much surface space for mold to grow. It was approved for use in 1967 and became a popular cheese additive in the 1980s. The ingredient is banned in Whole Foods and in some places abroad, so its use is controversial. The additive is produced by a type of soil bacteria known as Streptomyces natalensis. Natamycin is a common prescription used by doctors to treat eye infections. The FDA, World Health Organization and the European Safety Authority deem the product safe for consumption, in part because it is so poorly absorbed by the body.
But in the spirit of eating things in their most natural form, I must give three cheers for block cheese.
2. Pre-shredded cheese often costs more.
Walmart Great value charges the same amount for its cheese in block and shredded form (26.4 cents per ounce), but other manufacturers charge extra for that wood pulp and shredding labor. Lucern Farm’s pre-shredded cheddar is 38 cents per ounce shredded and 19 cents for the block. Typically, you get more cheese for your buck in the block form. And, let’s not forget you aren’t getting wood pulp with a block of cheese, so you get EVEN more real, actual cheese for that price.
3. Pre-shredded cheese actually has a shorter shelf-life.
Pre-shredded cheese, even with the addition of natamycin, which takes shelf life from a couple weeks to just over a month, doesn’t last as long as block cheese simply because there is more surface area, which makes it more susceptible to mold. Your block cheese is going to last, on average, twice as long.
4. Real cheese just tastes better.
Sure, you could call this opinion, but I’d say its a fact. Pre-shredded cheese has that weird powder, and because of its anti-caking ingredients, it just doesn’t melt as nicely. You don’t see cheese connoisseurs boasting about pre-shredded three cheese Mexican blends, do you?
Here’s my two cents:
The ingredients in shredded cheese won’t make your insides rot out or turn you into a vampire, but the quality is questionable. Cheese is a luxury. It is a very calorically dense food, and if you are treating yourself, why not make it something that tastes great instead of just okay? Us Americans are lazy when it comes to food. Aren’t we? Even the simplest of foods are processed for the sake of convenience. But what’s the price? Isn’t an extra few minutes of effort worth it for food that tastes better, feels better, and is better? Opt for an organic version with simple ingredients. Raw cheese can be a real treat, and can be found at most health food stores.
Make America grate again! Roll up your sleeves and get to shredding.