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On American Cheese

by Josh DeWald

February 22, 2013

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Donate 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 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 theemulsifying 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 Americancheese" (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.


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" arguablyis 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.


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.

by Josh DeWald

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