GC-MS can tell a good parmesan cheese

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  • Published: May 20, 2016
  • Author: Jon Evans
  • Source: American Chemical Society
  • Channels: Gas Chromatography / Base Peak
thumbnail image: GC-MS can tell a good parmesan cheese

Parmesan cheese A parmesan scandal reported earlier this year highlighted how easy it can be to doctor this cheese. In February 2016, news stories emerged about grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan, cheese containing cellulose as a filler or mixed with different, less expensive cheeses. One product labeled as 100% parmesan reportedly contained none.

For producers and consumers of some of the most expensive kinds of parmesan, this is a big problem. Generic versions abound, but the traditional variety comes from only a handful of Italian provinces and commands twice the price. Now, in a paper in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists report a novel method for identifying adulterated parmesan based on gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

To confirm the origin of regional products such as parmesan, the European Union has established a system for granting a ‘protected denomination of origin’ (PDO) designation. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, cheeses with the PDO label must meet certain requirements: for example, they must be made out of milk from cows that are not fed silage, a fermented cereal product often used in animal feed. Together with colleagues, Augusta Caligiani at Università degli Studi di Parma in Italy wanted to see if detecting compounds associated with these diets would make an effective way to determine the authenticity of PDO-labeled parmesan.

The scientists analyzed more than 300 samples of cheeses using a GC-MS method to see if it could distinguish between cheeses made with milk from cows that were or weren't fed silage. The team found that samples of Grana Padano, a cheese similar to parmesan but made with milk from cows allowed to eat silage, contained cyclopropane fatty acids. However, these fatty acids were not present in the PDO parmesan samples.

By measuring levels of cyclopropane fatty acids with GC-MS, the researchers were able to tell if a blend of the two cheeses contained 10% or more Grana Padano. Because the method is simple and fast, the researchers say it could be used by industry to screen large numbers of samples for potential adulteration.

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