Last Updated on September 26, 2023 by Aaron
Whether Parmesan is organic or not depends on how it was produced.
“Organic” is a designation for food products that are produced according to certain standards that limit the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, growth hormones, and other artificial agents.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has strict production standards due to its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. These standards ensure the cheese is made using traditional methods in its specific region of origin in Italy (primarily the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Bologna and Mantova). However, traditional does not necessarily mean organic.
Whether organic or not, the quality control for Parmigiano-Reggiano is quite high due to the PDO regulations.
Some producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano do follow organic farming practices and can have their cheese certified as organic. This means they avoid synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs, and follow guidelines regarding animal welfare.
Grass-fed and non-GMO?
Many of the cows producing milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano are largely grass-fed and non-GMO due to traditional and regional practices.
Traditionally, cows that produce milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano are fed primarily on local forage. The PDO regulations dictate that at least 50% of the feed must come from the area of origin. This often means a diet that’s largely based on grass and hay, especially when cows are out on pastures during appropriate seasons. However, “grass-fed” as a term has specific connotations, especially in places like the U.S., where it might mean the cow’s diet was exclusively grass with no grains.
So while many Parmigiano-Reggiano cows are largely grass-fed, whether they’re 100% grass-fed is a different matter.
On the other hand, Italy has strict regulations about GMOs. The country has largely been against the cultivation of genetically modified crops. As of current, the majority of Italian farmers do not grow GMOs, and this sentiment extends to the feed given to cows producing milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, if you’re looking for explicit non-GMO guarantees, you’d want to check if the cheese has a non-GMO certification or if the producer has made specific non-GMO claims.
Additionally, a concern about GMOs is in the rennet used.
Animal rennet and vegetable rennet are typically not GMO. But microbial rennet and Fermentation-Produced Chymosin (FPC) are where the lines blur. While microbial rennet originates from specific fungi or bacteria through fermentation, without direct genetic modification, FPC is a direct outcome of biotechnological processes. In creating FPC, the gene responsible for chymosin, the primary coagulating enzyme in rennet, is extracted from the stomach of cows and inserted into bacteria, fungi, or yeasts.
This method can yield a high amount of pure chymosin without relying on animals. Many cheeses including parmesan, especially in the U.S., are made using FPC because it’s consistent and readily available.
The Organic Parmesan & Brands
Terms like “natural” or “all-natural” are not the same as “organic” and don’t come with the same guarantees.
For Parmesan to be officially labeled as “organic,” it needs to be certified by an appropriate certifying body. In Europe, this would typically be under the EU organic regulations typically be represented by the EU’s green leaf logo, and in the U.S., it would be the USDA National Organic Program and their “USDA Organic” seal would be on the packaging.
But again, organic Parmigiano-Reggiano might be pricier than its non-organic counterparts due to the higher costs associated with organic farming. It also may not be as widely available, depending on where you are shopping.
When it comes to taste and quality, organic farming practices can influence the flavor profile of the cheese due to the natural diet of the cows and the absence of synthetic inputs. These will unavoidably change the bacteria diversity. Some people claim to notice a slight taste difference, while others choose organic primarily for environmental or health reasons.
The table below lists brands that sell organic parmesan & Parmigiano-Reggiano (updated):
|Organic Parmesan||Organic Valley, Stella, Organic Creamery, Milano’s, O Organics, Full Circle Market, Harris Teeter|
|Organic Parmigiano-Reggiano||Simple Truth (Kroger), Ambrosi, Wegmans, Colla, Parmissimo, Sainsbury’s, BioBio, Parmareggio, Caseificio BIO Reggiani, Granelli Massimo, Montanari Gruzza, Santa Rita Bio|
Note: While some brands produce both Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano, they are technically different cheeses, read Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano. Parmigiano-Reggiano refers specifically to the cheese produced in the Parma region of Italy under strict PDO guidelines. “Parmesan” can refer to similar cheeses produced elsewhere or by different standards.