Parmigiano cheese is a hard-textured, cooked, and well aged cheese made from raw cow's milk supplemented with natural whey starter rich in lactic acid bacteria.
But is it probiotic, you ask?
That's the 64 dollar question. No one really knows.
The usual starter bacterias for this cheese are Streptococcus thermophilus , Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp bulgaricus, Lactobacillus helveticus and Lactobacillus lactis . It will, however, acquire other beneficial bacteria as the cheese making process continues and through the aging process.
Can I tell you exactly what bacterial strain is any particular commercial cheese such as the varieties shown at the bottom of the page?
'fraid not. No one - except you and me - is interested in that and so no studies are done.
Won't that kill all those good bacteria?
The gentle "cooking" that this cheese undergoes is well within the range of the heat loving bacteria that thrive in it.
These are not the "prima donnas" of the supplement world! These thermophilic lactic acid bacteria love it warm and toasty!
But what I can tell you is what has been found in various batches of Parmigiano cheese so that you can see the enormous variety of lactic acid bacteria you get when you eat REAL food as opposed to taking probiotic supplements.
It is more properly called Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and is the "real" Parmesan cheese. The word Parmigiano Reggiano can only be used on cheese made in specific areas in Italy so any cheeses made in similar style but in other areas are refered to as Parmesen.
If you want to try this cheese, try this Parmigiano Reggiano made from unpasteurized milk. It doesn't get any better!
The individual studies are of little interest unless you're a cheese maker but they show time after time the incredible diversity of beneficial bacteria that you get in food.
In one study, mention is made of 17 different strains of Lactobacillus helveticus that were isolated from 7 Parmigiano Reggiano natural whey starter cultures1.
Comment was made on how the starter strains from that particular region were very biodiverse. And "Probably the smaller dimensions of Parmigiano Reggiano factories induce a range of specific traits in cheesemaking processes that are favorable to the selection in the natural whey culture of a wide variety of wild biotypes."1
My own feeling has always been is that if people ate more foods full of the good bacteria that mankind has always used for food preservation then we would not need to buy all these very specific probiotics. Our daily diet would give us such a wide selection of lactic acid bacteria that our intestinal microflora would be teeming with these immune enhancing "bugs".
In another study, this time of 12 month old ripened cheese, strains belonging to Lactobacillus casei group were in the highest number. Also found were Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. lactis, Lactobacillus parabuchneri, and Lactobacillus buchneri2.
Strains of L casei are used in many probiotic supplements. Are they the same ones found in this cheese? Who knows.
Another study revealed 187 different strains over the life time of the cheese as it progressed from the raw milk stage to the fully matured Parmigiano cheese.3. As the cheese alters in pH, undergoes temperature variations and has metabolic residues build up in the cheese, some bacteria thrive and others will die off having played their part in the cheese making.
A study on treating very young babies who suffered intestinal problems said they were given a homemade food called NO (Nuovo Olivi) consisting of 40 g of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese aged for at least 36 months, 40 g of rice or maize custard and tapioca, 40 g of sugar, 10 g of maize oil, all added to a litre of water. All the babies thrived on it and got over their various intestinal problems4. This mix seems commonly used in some Pediatric hospitals in Italy for babies who can not take their mother's milk.
This same study also used this mix for children that were lactose intolerant. It was well tolerated, as long as the cheese was matured for at least 24 months, by which time the milk proteins have degraded into peptides.
So is Parmigiano cheese probiotic? Probably not by the strictest definition of the word. But it is full of a diverse range of lactic acid and other beneficial bacteria that will do you nothing but good.
Parmigiano Reggiano 1lb wedge made from unpasteurized milk.
1. Monica Gatti, Carlo Trivisano, Enrico Fabrizi, Erasmo Neviani, Fausto Gardini. Biodiversity among Lactobacillus helveticus Strains Isolated from Different Natural Whey Starter Cultures as Revealed by Classification Trees. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2004 January; 70(1): 182-190. doi: 10.1128/AEM.70.1.182-190.2004.
2. Gala E, Landi S, Solieri L, Nocetti M, Pulvirenti A, Giudici P. Diversity of lactic acid bacteria population in ripened Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Int J Food Microbiol. 2008 Jul 31;125(3):347-51. Epub 2008 Apr 30.
3. Monica Gatti, Juliano De Dea Lindner, Angela De Lorentiis, Benedetta Bottari, Marcela Santarelli, Valentina Bernini, Erasmo Neviani. Dynamics of Whole and Lysed Bacterial Cells during Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Production and Ripening. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2008 October; 74(19): 6161-6167.
4. Mariaelena Pancaldi, Ilaria Mariotti, Fiorella Balli. Intestinal inflammation in nursing infants: different causes and a single treatment but of protected origin. Department of Pediatrics, University Hospital of Modena, Modena, Italy. ACTA BIOMED 2008; 79: 144-150.