I have some GREAT news about Parmigiano Reggiano (aka authentic parmesan) for anyone who avoids dairy for health reasons.
There is one cheese that is surprisingly good for you: real Parmigiano Reggiano.
I've been eating mostly dairy-free for years because dairy affects my skin (i.e. terrible breakouts along my jaw), but I've seen no adverse effects adding in a little Parmigiano a few times a week (hooray!).
In fact, I learned that people who never consumed any dairy whatsoever had less good bacteria in their digestive tracts and that a small amount of high-quality dairy such as authentic Parmigiano can actually improve your gut flora. Now, that does NOT mean you should eat loads of cheese (bummer, I know). It simply means that adding in the right kind of dairy can provide health benefits.
There is a catch: You have to get real authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.
Not to be confused with processed parmesan cheese—you know, the stuff in the bottle on the shelf or in those packets at pizza places— real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese comes from Northern Italy where production is highly regulated, and it has surprising health benefits.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano adds that savory umami flavor to elevate your home-cooked food. It's both a health win and a culinary win. Add a tablespoon or two on top of your favorite sauce, soup, or salad to elevate the flavor of your dish and gain its health benefits.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano Health Benefits:
1. Parmigiano Reggiano is lactose-free
What?! I know. Parmigiano Reggiano is still dairy, but the way the real stuff is made makes it free of lactose, making it much easier to digest than other dairy products. Also, since it's a hard cheese, it's generally considered safe for pregnant women (work with your healthcare provider if you have questions about that).
2. Parmigiano Reggiano has probiotic effects
Here's where it gets good for us health-nuts out there.
In multiple studies from the National Institutes of Health (1), it's noted that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus is present in 12-month aged Parmesan, and that "the probiotic nature of Parmigiano Reggiano [can possibly be used] in the prevention of intestinal and extraintestinal diseases at all ages, from infants to the elderly."
The study goes on to elaborate that, "Italian hard cooked types of cheese, like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, are characterized by positive nutritional qualities. In fact, they contain substances that have particular biological activities, and therefore they can be fully considered, according to the definition given by the European Unit, as ‘functional’ foods."
3. Parmigiano Reggiano is high in protein
One ounce of authentic Parmigiano Reggiano has 9 grams of complete protein. Nine grams, people! Since we use it as a garnish, you most likely won't be consuming a lot of it. However, you can feel good that you're adding a complete protein to your meal.
4. Parmigiano Reggiano is rich in vitamin B12, calcium, and zinc
Another health win: since the way it's meticulously made ensures that the nutrients are preserved, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is rich in vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, and other antioxidants and minerals that your body loves.
Parmigiano Reggiano vs Parmesan
Remember, the processed cheese that comes in the shaker bottle or packets at the pizza place does not have the benefits listed above. The fake versions are mostly preservatives and hardly any real cheese! To ensure you get the health benefits, you need to buy a block of the real stuff (money-saving tips below!). I also prefer to avoid the pre-grated parmesan because it's coated in an anti-caking agent.
The real stuff is usually out at room temperature at the store and can be kept that way for a week or so if it's tightly wrapped on your counter. However, I keep mine in the fridge in a tightly sealed bag to extend the shelf life (again, read my money-saving tips below).
Why is authentic Parmesean so expensive?
You're paying for the meticulous process that ensures you have authentic parmesan made to the highest standards. The entire process is actually governed by law in Northern Italy, starting with how the cows are treated and fed to the finished product. Every wheel is stamped and certified to be authentic.
A wheel of authentic parmesan takes over one year to age and costs over $1,000 USD, and it can only be made in a restricted area in northern Italy. The parmesan industry is estimated to be worth over $2.5 billion USD. The good news is that you can buy and use just a little at a time, making it much more affordable than buying it in large quantities.
How to save money when you buy Parmigiano:
Step 1: Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano can be found in the specialty cheese section of your store. The great news is that it's always sold by weight, and every cheese counter I've ever been to is happy to cut a larger piece into a smaller piece. It's typically displayed on the wheel in smaller pieces so you can see that it's authentic. If there are only large chunks (aka expensive) pieces, ask the cheese counter to cut one in half for you.
Ok, that wraps up my love note to real authentic Parmigiano cheese. I always have some in my fridge in my food saver bag, and you can bet that I ask the cheese counter to cut me a piece (I aim for around $10) so I can sprinkle it on my homemade pasta or a salad for that extra umami flavor.