DEAR DR. BLONZ: I was shopping for an upcoming party and considered purchasing grated cheese to save prep time in the kitchen. I have gotten into the habit of reading the labels of any packaged foods that I buy, and this one gave me pause. I know that fresh cheese is usually made from some type of milk along with salt and enzymes, but the package of grated cheese listed natamycin as an ingredient. I have no idea what that is. There was also powdered cellulose listed, which is a bit more familiar, but I am not certain why it is required either. Are these things I need to be concerned about? -- N.Z., via email
DEAR N.Z.: Finding unknown ingredients on your food labels can be troubling, especially if they have imposing-sounding names. It's easy to become concerned that something unwholesome is in the package. Ingredients -- even entirely wholesome ones -- often sound more onerous than they actually are, and in this case, there is little cause for concern.
When cheese is grated, there is a great increase in surface area, and with this increased area comes more space for unwanted molds or yeasts to grab on and make themselves at home. The natural moisture present in cheese can also create a friendly environment. Grated cheeses are usually packaged under a controlled atmosphere to inhibit the growth of such organisms, but that would not prevent them from being introduced and growing after the package is opened.
Natamycin is a naturally occurring preservative compound that helps prevent the growth of undesirable molds or yeasts. It is often used with cheeses because it doesn't work against the friendly bacteria that are essential for flavor development during the ripening process. You can find products that don't contain this preservative, but it is doubtful that it is cause for concern. It, along with the protein in the cheese, will be denatured and destroyed during the digestive process.
The powdered cellulose, a naturally occurring carbohydrate from plants, is there to prevent the grated cheese from clumping together. Cellulose, which is not digested, is the most plentiful carbohydrate substance in nature. It is actually considered to be dietary fiber, but such a small amount is needed for anti-caking purposes that the fiber won't even register on the nutrition label.
Regarding food additives in general, you can limit the problem by sticking to whole or minimally processed foods, but even this is no guarantee. As a group, food additives are a mixed lot, containing a variety of substances that accomplish some rather amazing things. They are all chemicals -- one and all -- but the same can be said for all foods, whether they come fresh from the garden or from a package on the shelf.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.