On American Cheese

This week a completed a move into another state with my family, so thought I’d write something a bit lighter than normal. I grew up eating American cheese. I loved American cheese. When hungry near bed time I would go into the kitchen and unwrap a slice of American cheese and savor its yummy goodness. Then I met my wife and she introduced me to cheddar cheese and I now tend to refer to my former love as American “cheese”, as do most people I encounter. But I wondered, is it fair to say that American cheese isn’t “really” cheese?

According to Merriam-Webster, cheese is defined as “a food consisting of the coagulated, compressed, and usually ripened curd of milk separated from the whey”. Or by dictionary.com as “the curd of milk separated from the whey and prepared in many ways as a food”. So at least the information definition is pretty basic… its something made from (compressed) milk curd.

Comparing ingredients

If memory serves, I grew up loving Kraft Singles. From the horse’s mouth, the ingredients for Kraft Singles are somewhat complicated, the main ones being:

  • Milk
  • Whey
  • Milk protein concentrate
  • Milkfat
  • Sodium citrate (according to 21CFR133.173, this is the emulsifying agent that helps keep everything together)

Compare that with Sargento cheddar cheese (happens to be in the fridge), ingredients:

  • Pasteurized milk
  • Cheese culture
  • Salt
  • Enzymes
  • Annatto
  • Natamycin

So clearly Kraft Singles are more complicated and their label actually says “Pasteurized process cheese product”. What’s that all about?

The FDA weighs in

It seems that a large amount of my Skeptical research lands me on the FDA, and this time is no different.

Looking back at the ingredients for Sargento (basically the same as Tillamook or any other), it is obviously in line with the legal definition of “cheddar cheese” as defined by 21CFR133.113, where one of the main ingredients must be cultured milk.

As linked above (on the emulsifier), the regulations for “pasteurized process cheese food” cannot leave off the all important “food” (or sometimes “product”) nor the processed part (but that’s arguably less important for our purposes). And this is what Kraft singles are. It has the “American” on it defining the style, but it is not actually cheese.

But if you go a couple of regulations up to 21CFR169, you come across “pasteurized process cheese”. There it says that in the case where the product is made of out cheddar cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese or washed curd cheese that the product can actually be called “Pasteurized process American cheese” (note: not “cheese product”). So the big thing that separates “pasteurized process cheese” from “pasteurized process cheese food/product” (CFR definition) is that the “cheese” is actually made from… cheese.

It turns out Kraft actually has a branding “Deluxe” which has one made from American cheese, as defined by the CFR (basically cheese plus some other stuff). Ingredients:

  • American Cheese (Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes)
  • Water
  • Milkfat
  • Sodium Citrate
  • Calcium Phosphate
  • Salt
  • Sodium Phosphate

So yeah, it’s got the fun “processed” part with the emulsifier to put it all together. But it at least starts with good old cheese.

Conclusion

I started this expecting to “debunk” the idea that the cheese that I grew up loving wasn’t “really” cheese. It basically turns out that that was right, its a “cheese product”. But it turns out that “American cheese” arguably is cheese, its just perhaps not the product that I (many people?) grew up thinking was “American cheese”. I’ve got the urge to get some of those “deli deluxe” (or some other equivalent) and see if they taste anything like the cheddar I’ve grown to love.

REFERENCES

US FDA. Code of Federal Regulations. 21CFR133.113. “Cheddar cheese”. As of April 1, 2012. Visited February 2013.
US FDA. Code of Federal Regulations. 21CFR133.169. “Pasteurized process cheese”. As of April 1, 2012. Visited February 2013.
US FDA. Code of Federal Regulations. 21CFR133.173. “Pasteurized process cheese food”. As of April 1, 2012. Visited February 2013.

About Josh DeWald

I am a software engineer, husband and parent of two. I have been involved in the Skeptical movement for a few years now, especially since having children and so needing to fight pseudoscience related to parenting (vaccines, homeopathy, etc). I've been fortunate to attend TAM twice with my wife (who is also of a Skeptical bent). I also have a blog known as "What Does the Science Say?" (whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com), where I have an odd habit of writing a lot about aspartame.
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15 Responses to On American Cheese

  1. Any dairy product containing more than “milk (cream), bacterial culture and/or enzyme, (in some cases flavoring, and/or salt)” should be shunned. Just like beer that contains anything other than hops, malt, and water.
    Yes, those other magic ingredients are perfectly safe, but … c’mon!

  2. Craig Good says:

    Perhaps you know this one, then: A friend told me years ago that he learned from someone at Kraft (IIRC) that the cheese food product known as Velveeta is yellow only due to food coloring. Its normal appearance is a clear gel. How’s that for an appetizing image?

    I found it plausible, but I don’t know the chemistry of Velveeta. Your blog post makes me wonder.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Well even cheddar and the like are colored (most using Annatto), but a clear gel certainly sounds less than appetizing. But then again, I’ve found many foods don’t sound appetizing when you really think about it!.

      • Theo Bromine says:

        I’m not a chemist, but I would expect pre-annato Velveeta would be a “milky-white” colour, with all the added milk protein and whey protein – I would certainly not expect it to be clear. (Not that whitish glop is any more appetizing than clear glop)

  3. Theo Bromine says:

    Guess what we call Kraft “American Cheese” in Canada? It used to be called “Canadian Cheese”, but now is just “Kraft Singles”.

  4. Dani Johnson says:

    I’ve always been a fan of real cheese and cheese product. I can remember hiding in my room and devouring a can of Easy Cheese on an entire sleeve of Ritz crackers as a child because the creamy goodness of that cheese was SO irresistible. I also still remember the very first time my Grampa let me have a slice of his Velveeta cheese. It was his favorite and he gave me a slice to see if I’d like it and it was love at first taste. However, my favorite will always be a block of extra sharp cheddar cheese, the more texture the better. I like mine to fall off in chunks when you try to break it. Yum, I could really go for some cheese right about now.

    Reading your article led me down a rabbit hole that turned up this lovely article:
    http://discovermagazine.com/2011/sep/16-the-secret-of-velveeta-how-cheese-food-is-made

  5. My favorite “food” is “ham and water product.” It’s really just ham with any amount of water added, but it sounds so fake.

  6. Argent47 says:

    I like cheese that is as close to “genuine” as possible … so I definitely avoid the “pimento cheese” cartons whose first listed ingredient is “imitation American cheese product”(!).

  7. Anonymous says:

    It’s usually pointless to argue semantics. Cheese is what we want it to be, and people think of American cheese as cheese. And I don’t think this is just a case of a misnomer, like how a starfish isn’t a fish.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      There is certainly a semantic aspect to it, but I was surprised to find out that there is a difference between, say, Kraft Singles “American” and American cheese. Both are certainly processed, but one is closer to what is technically cheese.

      • Anonymous says:

        Josh,
        Sargento Cheddar Cheese? You’re eating the Kraft American Cheese of Cheddar Cheeses. Don’t take this personally, buddy, but between this thread and the one in which you speak positively about putting sucralose in milk, I have to say you eat a lotta crap.

        • Josh DeWald says:

          I never claimed to be a connoisseur :)

          As to the milk article, I don’t think I implied that I would be drinking the sweetened milk, I can’t even remember the last time I had chocolate milk or any sweetened milk product like that. That’s not to say I don’t eat crap, but don’t think that’s relevant to the article.

          • Anonymous says:

            I understand, Josh, but if you come across a good cheese shop (please, no Monty Python allusions!) do yourself a favor and stop in. They’ll have a bunch of different cheddar cheeses from the US, England, and Ireland and will give you little samples to try for free if you ask. In my experience, Whole Foods stores tend to have a pretty good variety of cheeses, though I haven’t checked their Cheddar offerings.

            Bon appetit!

          • Josh DeWald says:

            Fair enough :) I’m a fan of sharp cheddar myself… had some good stuff for the brief period of time when I lived in England. Don’t think I even knew there were even that many different types of cheeses until then.

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