Parmesan, also known as Parmigiano-Reggiano, is a hard Italian cheese with unique nutritional qualities.
Some people even consider it a functional food, believing that its components may improve health or reduce disease risk (
Its most notable nutritional characteristics include lots of protein and calcium and easy digestibility (
Traditionally, this well-known Italian cheese is made through a 1,000-year-old manufacturing process, which results in its characteristic flavor and texture.
However, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration states that any cheese with the same physical and chemical properties may be labeled as Parmesan, regardless of the manufacturing location (3).
This article explores the nutritional benefits, common uses, and potential downsides of Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmesan cheese is an Italian cheese with a characteristically strong and nutty flavor that may be sweet, salty, and bitter at the same time. It has a crumbly, grainy texture and may vary in color from light to dark yellow.
Unlike most other types of cheese, it has a protected designation of origin (PDO) set by the European Union (EU) (
This means that within the EU, only cheese made in the traditional production locations — the northern Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua — may be called and sold as Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano (
How is it made?
In addition to being produced in specific Italian regions, Parmesan cheese is made exclusively with the milk of cows bred in the same area — a mix of Italian Frisona, Bianca Modenese, brown, and red cows (5).
The manufacturing process dates back to the Middle Ages, when monks developed a dry-paste cheese assembled into large wheels weighing up to 39 pounds (18 kilograms) each. These were suited for long-term preservation (6).
Parmesan is made through a process called rennet coagulation. Rennet is a group of animal enzymes used to start the coagulation (solidifying) process. Calf rennet is the most commonly used animal rennet (
- Setting: Cow’s milk starts to coagulate from the addition of rennet. Liquid whey starts to separate from a firm curd of casein micelles, milk’s main type of protein.
- Cutting: Once the curd has formed, it’s cut into rice-size pieces to further promote the expulsion of whey and reduce the cheese’s moisture content. This is done using a traditional tool called a spino.
- Cooking: The mixture of curd and whey is cooked at 131°F (55°C) to promote curd contraction and further whey expulsion.
- Draining: Once cooked, a mass of cheese is formed, and the whey is drained to separate it from what will become the cheese.
- Knitting: The curd continues to fuse to form a larger cheese mass.
- Pressing: Like knitting, pressing helps with whey expulsion and promotes a complete fusion of the curd. It’s done by applying external pressure to the curd. A mold is then used to form the recognizable Parmesan wheels.
- Salting: This last step reduces the moisture of the cheese. The wheels are submerged in saltwater or brine, which allows for salt absorption.
After salting, the maturation, or ripening, period begins.
The ripening time can range from 12 months to more than 40 months. The total maturation time determines the final texture and flavor of the cheese.
Parmesan is a hard cheese traditionally produced in specific regions in northern Italy. It has a strong, nutty flavor and grainy texture that can vary depending on the maturation period.
Parmesan cheese is highly nutritious, even when consumed in small amounts.
A 1-ounce (28-gram [g]) serving of hard Parmesan provides (
- Calories: 111
- Protein: 10 g
- Fat: 7 g
- Carbs: 0.9 g
- Calcium: 26% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Phosphorus: 16% of the DV
- Sodium: 14% of the DV
- Zinc: 7% of the DV
Because of its protein and fat content, this cheese is an energy-dense food, which means it provides a high number of calories per serving.
Parmesan isn’t lacto-vegetarian because it is typically made with animal rennet. On food labels, rennet will usually be listed as “enzymes.” It’s safe to assume that these enzymes come from animal rennet unless the packaging specifies otherwise (3,
However, vegetarian Parmesan does exist. BelGioioso makes a Parmesan without animal rennet, and the label clearly states that the product is vegetarian and made without animal rennet (11).
The cheese’s fat content mainly provides medium- and short-chain fatty acids. These are more easily absorbed and may be used as rapid energy sources, resulting in less body fat accumulation (
Parmesan cheese is highly nutritious. It’s rich in protein, ready-to-use fat, and nutrients that support bone health.
Here are some of the benefits of Parmesan cheese.
While milk is an essential part of cheesemaking, Parmesan is virtually lactose-free.
Lactose is the main type of carbohydrate found in milk, but around 75% of the world’s population can’t digest it. This is due to a deficiency of lactase — an enzyme that helps you digest lactose by breaking it down into sugars called glucose and galactose (
As a result, people with lactose intolerance may experience diarrhea, abdominal pain, flatulence, and bloating after ingesting it.
While milk contains about 5% lactose, the lactose is found in the whey — the watery portion. Thus, when whey is removed from the curd during cheese manufacturing, the lactose is removed along with it (
As a result, Parmesan has a maximum lactose content of 0.10 milligrams per 100 kilocalories of product and is considered safe for those with lactose intolerance to eat (
May support bone health
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in your body and plays an essential role in bone health. In fact, about 99% of your body’s calcium supply is stored in your bones for function and structural support (
Poor absorption or low intake of this mineral can lead to bone breakdown, in which your body relies on its bone reserves to maintain important bodily functions. In turn, a lack of calcium can lead to osteoporosis — a condition characterized by fragile bones (
As mentioned, Parmesan cheese is a good source of calcium, with each serving providing 26% of the DV (
Thanks to the cheese’s casein content, the calcium in Parmesan also has a high bioavailability. This means it’s easily absorbed by your body. When casein is digested, it leaves mineral residues that enhance the absorption of other minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc (
Rich in easily digestible protein
And because it contains all the essential amino acids, it’s considered a complete protein.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Essential amino acids are the ones you need to get from food because your body can’t produce them.
In addition to being high quality, the protein in Parmesan is easy to digest.
During the maturation period, the proteins in the cheese undergo a process similar to a pre-digestion. In other words, they’re broken down into smaller compounds, such as free amino acids, that your body absorbs more easily (
Parmesan cheese is a lactose-free cheese that’s rich in calcium and easily digestible, high quality protein.
Parmesan cheese is as versatile as it is nutritious and may be enjoyed in meals ranging from appetizers to desserts.
It’s typically sold shredded, grated, or in wedges and is widely available in stores and online.
Because its flavor can vary depending on the ripening time, it may pair better with certain drinks or dishes depending on its maturity.
Some typical maturation periods and their recommended pairings are (5):
- 12–19 months: These have a mild, delicate flavor with hints of fruit and yogurt. They’re mainly added to salads and cold dishes and enjoyed with sparkling white wines.
- 20–26 months: These are balanced cheeses and are enjoyed in sauces, desserts, and traditional Italian dishes such as soup and pasta.
- 27–34 months: These types are aromatic and have a pronounced flavor. They pair well with baked pasta dishes or with fruits and honey for dessert.
- 35–45 months: These are characterized by intense flavor and pair well with red wine.
Adding Parmesan to your dishes may enhance their flavor and nutritional profile. You may enjoy it in sweet and savory dishes alike.
Since it’s a milk product high in the protein casein, Parmesan cheese may be unsuitable for people with an allergy to casein or cow’s milk.
Symptoms may include (
- skin irritation
- breathing issues
- asthma attacks
- gastrointestinal problems
- anaphylactic shock
If you’re allergic to casein or cow’s milk, avoid milk and milk products, including Parmesan cheese.
Parmesan cheese may cause allergic reactions in people with an allergy to casein or cow’s milk. People with these allergies should avoid Parmesan cheese and other milk products.
Parmesan is an aged cheese with a strong flavor and a crumbly texture. it is produced in certain regions of northern Italy.
It’s highly nutritious and can be a great choice for people who have lactose intolerance or are looking for easy-to-digest proteins. It may also support bone health.
However, it’s not suitable for people with a casein or cow’s-milk allergy.
Parmesan cheese makes a delicious addition to sweet and savory dishes alike. Find it in stores or online in block, shredded, or grated form.