PARMIGIANO REGGIANO: some properties concealed by this characteristic cheese

Author: Marta Breda
Date: 17/03/2015



Parmigiano Reggiano is a PDO Italian long-ripened cheese which is famous all over the world due to its tasty flavour which can be pleasantly combined with many kinds of food, grating it over pasta or rice dishes, or stirring it into soup or cornmeal mush, or appreciated just eating it on its own.
What is not as famous as this cheese is the fact that it hides surprising properties like that to be a drug as efficient as an antibiotic against gastrointestinal disorders.
In this regard, Prof. Oliviero Olivi, an Italian pediatrician, in 1970s while dealing with many cases of enteritis in newborns, noticed that feeding ill babies with a mixture of milk and Parmigiano Reggiano (10% of the suspension in order not to overload their kidneys) helped them to overcome the infection and to restore their intestinal flora.
Parmigiano Reggiano, as revealed from other studies carried out in subsequent years, has also the advantage to be tolerated by people affected by allergies to lactose or milk proteins and is also helpful in preventing osteoporosis.

Parmigiano Reggiano: an healthy influence over intestinal flora

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The main ingredient of Parmigiano Reggiano of course is milk. Anyway the peculiar production of this cheese contemplates the mixture of the whole milk of the morning milking with the naturally skimmed milk (which is made by holding milk in large shallow tanks to allow the cream to separate) of the previous evening's milking. What results is a part skim mixture to which starter whey, calf rennet and salt are added at different stages of the process.

"How it is made":

The ripening period of Parmigiano Reggiano must be at least 12 months toward 36 months at the end of which a cheese with a sharp, complex fruity/nutty taste, a strong savory flavour and a slightly gritty texture is obtained.
The chemical explanation of the taste of this cheese is connected to its aroma-active compounds, including various aldehydes and butyrates. Parmigiano is also particularly high in glutamate, containing as much as 1.2 g of glutamate per 100 g of cheese.
The high concentration of glutamate explains the strong umami taste of Parmigiano.
Parmigiano cheese typically contains cheese crystals, semi-solid to gritty crystalline spots that at least partially consist of the amino acid tyrosine.

Parmigiano Reggiano - Wikipedia

  • A nourishing food rich in proteins and lipids but not too much

100 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano provide 392 kCal (1641 kJ) and this can be easily explained as the energetic supply is related to proteins (55%) and lipids (40%).
Anyway the content in lipids is low if compared with other kinds of cheese as the process of production starts with partially skimmed milk.
The content in proteins is characterized by the elevated presence of essential amino acids and generally low molecular weight-peptides.

Nutritional values

Form with nutritional features of Parmigiano Reggiano

  • High content of copper enhances cellular aerobic respiration

What could seem just a traditional process is what instead confers to PR a metabolic usefulness. In fact, copper tanks which are used in PR production are involved in a copper leaching phenomena that lets PR show at the end a copper content of 5,78g/kg against 0,4 mg/kg revealed in cheese produced in steel tanks.
Once absorbed in the gut, copper is transported to the liver bound to albumin. After processing in the liver, copper is distributed to other tissues in a second phase. Copper transport here involves the protein ceruloplasmin, which carries the majority of copper in blood.
Copper is then involved in the reduction of oxygen in aerobic cellular respiration as a component of cytochrome c oxidase where cooperates with iron in mitochondrial electron transport chain.

Mineral content of dairy products, 1978
Copper leaching phenomena along Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano cheese making
Research to promotion of Parmigiano Reggiano, 2009

  • High probiotic potential not impaired by biological barriers or antibiotics

It was found out that Parmigiano Reggiano contains a non-starter lactic acid bacteria (NSLAB) fraction which comes from untreated milk and it is in addition to what derives from the normal whey starter. The high tolerance to the hostile environment of PR cheese allows NSLAB to develop during ripening, so this microbial fraction is particularly attractive as bioreservoir for potential probiotic strains suitable to survive to gastrointestinal tract condition.
Most of the probiotic activity was attributed to strains of bacteria belonging to Lactobacillus Casei and Lactobacillus Rhamnosus spieces.
According to the outcomes of different studies, some strains of L. Casei and L. Rhamnosus have the capability to survive at low stomach pH and to bile salts within more than 24 hours. Moreover, L.Rhamnosus has also shown a major resistance to some antibiotics than other strains isolated from cheese different from PR, thus a synergic effect between antibiotic therapy and PR assumption whose bacteria can so compete very well with pathogens by aggregating and colonizing the gastrointestinal mucosa, can be infered.

Probiotic potential of non-starter Lactobacillus strains from ripened Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, 2014

Bile salt and acid tolerance of Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains isolated from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, 2005

Antibiotic resistance of lactobacilli isolated from two italian hard cheeses, 2009

  • High tolerability: absence of lactose and pre-digested peptides

Figure: beta-casomorphin, a peptide that can be released by digestion of A1-beta-casein
beta-casomorphin, a peptide that can be released by digestion of A1-beta-casein

PR is surprisingly tolerated by people affected by allergies to lactose and, in some cases, to cow milk.
In fact, during aging caseins are gradually and constantly broken down by the proteolytic enzymes of milk, rennet and lactic acid bacteria, yielding a nitrogen fraction which is continuously changing during the cheese maturation, gradually shifting from full proteins to longer peptides, then to shorter peptides and free amino acids. The peptide fraction of aged cheese is thus extremely complex, being formed by proteins, hundreds of different peptides, mostly deriving from αl lactalbumine- and β-casein, the two most abundant proteins in the casein (CAS) fraction, and free amino acids. The composition of this fraction is related to the month of maturation. Actually, older samples were accordingly poorer in CAS than younger ones.
Also lactose, the principal carbohydrate present in milk, is almost completely absent in PR as the lactose disappears during the first hours after the cheese making process.
With regard to the carbohydrate fraction, is very important to note the presence of some oligosaccharides that derive not only from those normally present in cow’s milk, but also from the action of the complex fermentative digestive processes that take place during the cheesemaking process. These oligosaccharides are non-digestible short-chain carbohydrates, with a possible prebiotic function that may have the ability to stimulate growth and/or activities of one or more bacteria in the colon by exerting beneficial effects on health. Prebiotics act as selective substrates for fermentation and influence microbic activity and the absorption of minerals in the intestine, as well as promoting immune response.

Tolerability of a Fully Maturated Cheese in Cow’s Milk Allergic Children: Biochemical, Immunochemical, and Clinical Aspects, 2012

  • Helpful against osteoporosis

The caseinophosphopeptides (CPP) are released during the proteolytic maturation from the milk casein in the gastrointestinal tract and are partially responsible for the high calcium bioavailability of milk and dairy products. Several studies show that CPPs inhibit calcium phosphate precipitation in the intestine and enhance calcium absorption because, by binding with the mineral keep it in a soluble form, thus making it bioavailable and promoting its passive absorption . PR has a very high content of calcium, equal to 1159 mg/100 g of product (with a calcium/phosphorus ratio around 1:7) highly bioavailable due to the presence of mineral in the form of lactate, both for the synergy with casein-phosphopeptides. From this point of view, the PR is an excellent food supplement for bone health; we know that 50 gr of PR cover about 75% of the calcium requirement for adults, up to 60% of the recommended amount for children and 45% of the amount recommended for women over 50 years of age. From these few data the key role of PR in preventing osteoporosis can be easily suggested.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and bone health, 2011


Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can be considered a “functional food” because of some nutritional characteristics that be able to produce beneficial effects on health and consumer welfare. In particular we can be noted that PR is an easy digested cheese for the presence of “ready to use” proteins and lipids, lactose free, calcium rich, with prebiotic and probiotic effect.
For its high nutrient content and high digestibility Parmigiano Reggiano is a cheese recommended in all feeding age groups. Moreover PR is a very important food for skeleton health: it is an optimal source of many essential nutrients for the acquisition and maintenance of bone health such as proteins, minerals and vitamins. The presence of high biological value protein and calcium highly bioavailable, make the Parmesan cheese a “functional food” for bone health and osteoporosis prevention.
Studies on prebiotic properties of PR and peptides found at different stages of ripening are still being carried on. Among these, a new clinical trial, which will be closed in 2016, has been started with the purpose to analyze the effects of Parmigiano Reggiano consumption on remission from gastroenteritis in pediatric patients while more studies on are still being carried on. Anyway, even if prebiotic peptides are still waiting for a clear chemical definition it can be appreciate how useful and pleasant at the same time a nibble of PR can be, especially while facing intestinal disorders.

Parmesan like a medicine against enteritis and allergies

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