What On Earth is American Cheese?

There's nothing that shows off patriotic spirit more than a slice of orange cheese. American cheese is slapped on everything from juicy burgers to grilled cheese sandwiches, taking everyone under its spell. It melts like a dream, and can be found in every grocery store across the United States, but is it actual cheese?

What is American Cheese?

I hate to break it to you, but American Cheese isn't cheese at all. Just like the people's reactions to finding the perfect house on House Hunters, it's not all that it seems. According to the FDA, a product is considered cheese if it contains 51% of pressed curds of milk. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the law, American cheese contains less than 51%, making it a "pasteurized processed American cheese product." 

The processed cheese we enjoy today was the invention of James L. Kraft, who back in 1903 moved from Canada to Chicago to wholesale cheese. Keen to save money, he tried packaging his cheese in cans and jars. Then one day he decided to try something radical and shred leftover cheddar, re-pasteurize it, and add in sodium phosphate to emulsify the entire concoction together. He took out a patent on it and his new cheese became an overnight sensation. By the 1930s 40% of all cheese consumed was Kraft, and no one had any idea the cheese was created from leftovers.

Seeing Kraft's success, natural cheese makers began to lobby against him, insisting the government distinguish the difference between his product and real cheese. The code of Federal Regulations requires that American cheese be manufactured from cheddar cheese, colby cheese, washed curd cheese, granular cheese, or a combination of cheeses.

In fact, it's pretty easy to make your own American cheese at home. Who knew that cheesemaking was so simple?

Is Processed Cheese Bad?

All cheese is processed, whether it be Velveeta or a block of artesian goat cheese from the Swiss Alps. You can't find cheese hanging on trees (sadly), which means that every piece of cheese must be created by hand and processed. While it may not be a fancy French or Italian cheese, American cheese will always be at the forefront of cheese culture. Nothing represents the good ole' US of A more than melted American cheese on a McDonald's burger.

And while it is usually served in fast food, it doesn't mean it's bad for you. One Kraft single cheese slice will only set you back 60 calories, and it is packed with calcium and protein.

And it's not like American cheese just appeared out of thin air. There's real cheese in there, along with additional emulsifying agents and whey protein to add the incredible melt and cheese-pull you expect from the melted slices of American cheese. Sure, the label may call is "pasteurized process cheese food" but that doesn't stop me from putting it on my burger and enjoying every last bite of it.

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