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Scientists Develop a Parmigiano-Reggiano Authenticity Test

Do you truly have the "king of cheeses"?

Jamais Cascio/Flickr

Where there is a prized and pricey foodstuff, there will inevitably be those attempting to imitate it in pursuit of profits (see: olive oil fraud and peanuts being sold as pricier pine nuts). Scientists in Italy have devised a new method of determining if the region's illustrious "king of cheeses," Parmigiano-Reggiano, is legit.

In the European Union, the Parmigiano-Reggiano name is a protected designation of origin, meaning only cheeses produced in certain regions and according to a specific process involving local cows and unpasteurized milk can be sold as such. According to Chemical & Engineering News, researchers at the University of Parma have devised a new test to determine whether a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano was made according to the exacting standards set forth under Italian law.

C&EN explains that cows producing Parmigiano-Reggiano "must never be fed on a fermented fodder called silage because it can sometimes contain Clostridium bacteria. The bacteria aren’t pathogens but can produce gas in cheese during the ripening stage, causing defects." Scientists are now able to identify whether a cow was fed silage by testing for the presence of two specific types of cyclopropane fatty acids, or CPFAs.

If a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano is found not to contain any CPFAs, then it's authentic — but if the molecules are present, there's a good chance the cheese has been adulterated with cheaper Grana Padano, which is made from cows that are fed silage.

The new test will help guarantee a cheese's authenticity by "proving that the cheese was made according to traditional methods," and reassuring consumers they're really getting what they pay for. Meanwhile in the U.S., cheesemakers are free to use the term "parmesan" much more loosely — and in recent months, lawsuits have emerged after some brands of shredded cheese were revealed to contain excessive amounts of filler in the form of wood pulp.