Imitation cheese found on Czech pizza

Foto: Archiv des Tschechischen Rundfunks - Radio Prag

Everyone knows the basic ingredients of pizza are dough, tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese. But a new study has found that much of the pizza being served in the Czech Republic is made with so-called "fake cheeses", that aren't really cheese at all. Ilya Marritz has more.

It looks like cheese, smells like cheese, it often even tastes something like cheese. But cheese it isn't. Petra Zachari of the Consumers Defense Association explains what her group found when they took they took the so-called "cheese" being served in some restaurants to the laboratory.

"We did discover that what is basically very common on the Czech market especially in big stores and restaurants, which is alarming, is that people get fake cheese instead of real cheese. You order for example pizza and there should be cheese because on the menu it's written 'with cheese', or fried cheese and you get fake cheese, not it's not real cheese."

Yes, even the classic Czech dish of deep-fried cheese, or smazeny syr, is often made from imitation cheese - usually a combination of vegetable oil and starch. Real cheese is made from milk, and contains milk fat, milk carbohydrates, and milk protein.

"We actually made a little excursion and we did taste ten of them, some of them are really disgusting. And you can really tell the difference because it's transparent or white, it's more liquid, it has a different texture and it's not tasty at all."

The Consumers Defense Association found 19 restaurants alone in the region of North Bohemia serving the stuff. Zachari says imitation cheeses are often found in fast food, because it's cheaper.

The Czech Republic's chief health officer, Michael Vit, has promised action.

"We will make it a normal part of our inspections. We'll go to pizzerias and take samples from what they call cheese, and if after we test the fat and find that it's vegetable oil and not milk fat, we will declare it to be fake cheese."

Recently Dr. Vit was authorized to inspect for false advertising in food products.

"The Ministry of Health and my department - the Public Health Authority - have until now only been checking for harmful substances that could hurt your health. But under new health laws, now we're also responsible for making sure customers aren't misled. And this is the first such case we've identified."

Whatever harm fake cheese may do to the public trust, it probably won't do anything bad for your health. It's lower in fat than real cheese, and contains no cholestorol.

"Please don't think though that it's a health risk. There really is agreement that these imitation cheeses are not harmful to one's health. It's just that if you buy a product and think you know what you're getting, you shouldn't have to find out later that you were eating something other than mozzarella."

Petra Zachari of the Consumers Defense Association says the manufacturers of imitation cheese deliberately package it to mislead customers.

"it cannot be called cheese so it has funny names like Pizza a la Mozzarella, or Ambra or Pizza Mia or Cheese Alternative. Usually you have real cheese and fake cheese and fake cheese and it has the same packaging so sometimes people when they hurry they just grab one package and they don't realize it's the fake one and not the real one. We found it in Delvita and Albert and places like that."