You may have noticed that American cheese bears little resemblance to other cheeses — or other foods, for that matter.
Somehow, though, it’s everywhere — on burgers and cheese sandwiches and melted into queso dips. So what is American cheese, and how does it differ from the cheese we eat that doesn’t come in individually-packed slices?
American cheese: Square “food product”
French cheese, Italian cheese, Swiss cheese… the very names evoke thoughts of flavorful, aromatic cheeses with beautiful names like Camembert, Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyere and Gorgonzola.
And what comes to mind when you hear the term American cheese? Probably something like “rubbery orange squares.” The technical term for the slices wrapped in plastic is “processed cheese product.”
It wasn’t always this way. For example, in the early 20th century, American cheese meant simply “cheese made in America.” Now, and while we produce a wide variety of cheeses stateside (particularly in California and Wisconsin), the four that the USDA considers to be American cheeses are Cheddar, Colby, Monterey and Jack.
According to the USDA, you need to look at the label to find out what’s in the item in question.
Processed cheese is prepared by mixing one or more cheeses, with the aid of heat, with an emulsifying agent. The cheese is then poured into molds to solidify. The final product can have a maximum moisture content of 43%, and must have at least 47% milkfat.
Cheese food must contain at least 51% of the cheese ingredient by weight, have a moisture content less than 44%, and contain at least 23% milkfat.
Cheese product may contain less than 51% cheese, and does not need to meet the maximum moisture content of 43% and/or the 47% minimum milkfat standards of processed cheese.
In the FDA’s official definition of pasteurized process cheese, the word “plastic” is actually used (though undoubtedly referring to the material’s plasticity, and and does not suggest it’s made out of the same stuff used to make Pokemon figurines).
Also interesting is the way the EPA — that’s the Environmental Protection Agency — describes the American cheese manufacturing process:
Cheeses are selected to be processed from both mild and sharp cheeses. For example, American cheese is made from Cheddar and Colby cheeses. Once selected, the cheeses must be analyzed for their fat and moisture contents to determine the proper amount of emulsifiers and salts to be added. Cheese surfaces are cleaned by scraping and trimming, and the rinds are removed.
After cleaning, the cheese blocks are ground in massive grinders, combined, and the cheese mixture is heated. At this point, the melted cheese separates into a fat and serum. Emulsifiers are added to disperse the fat, and create a uniform, homogenous mass. The molten cheese is removed quickly from the cookers and is pumped or dropped into packaging hoppers.
We love that cheese-like substance
Say what you will about the stuff’s clinical manufacturing process, but process cheese — whether in slices or a loaf — probably appeals to a lot of Americans because it lasts a long time (270 days, according to Land O Lakes), it melts nicely, the result is consistent… and it’s comparatively cheap. You also can’t argue that it’s a pretty major ingredient in Philly cheesesteaks, grilled cheese sandwiches and chili cheese dip.
Interestingly, when it comes to the cheese’s popularity, there are racial and geographical divides. A USDA report from 2010 noted that white people bought over 12 pounds of cheese per person, and processed cheese was their number one cheese of choice. They also found that folks living in the Midwest purchased more processed cheese than any other kind.