Processed cheese is cheaper than natural cheese, making it popular with fast-food chains and restaurants. Processed cheese has emulsifiers to boost its taste, and with its ubiquity in our culture, an untrained tongue might find a mild natural cheese lacking in flavor. Let’s explore five features of processed cheese and learn about this cheesy innovation.
1. Processed cheese is a Swiss invention, not American
Processed cheese was invented in Switzerland by Walter Gerber in 1911. Five years later, James L. Kraft applied for the first U.S. patent for a method of making processed cheese. James and his brother Norman Kraft commercialized and mass-produced processed cheese in the form of American cheese. An instant hit for its long shelf life, consistent flavor, and mechanically-sliced and individually wrapped innovations, American cheese came to be widely used in cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Today, many processed cheese products are specially produced for a particular segment of food products like cheese for burgers and sandwiches, cheese for Mexican dishes, cheese curds for Poutine, liquid cheese sauce for nachos, and many more.
2. Technically, processed cheese is not cheese
You heard that right. All-natural cheese is derived from milk and other natural ingredients. On the other hand, processed cheese contains around 49% natural cheese that is then is mixed with dairy by-products, including emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, whey, salt preservatives, sugar, and food coloring.
By FDA standards, the word cheese indicates that the product is made with at least 51% real cheese. That’s why, if you look closely at a box of Kraft Singles, you’ll see it’s called a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.”
3. Processed cheese has exceptional melting ability
Processed cheese’s high melting capacity is one of its most appealing features. When melted, the acid and phosphates in the processed cheese emulsifiers bond to calcium. Because the phosphates can retain water and proteins together rather than separating into layers, processed cheese is gooier than natural cheese without lumping or separating.
4. Processed cheese is safe to eat
Even with its highly technical processing and chemical ingredients, processed cheese is safe to eat and even offers microbiological qualities. During pasteurization, harmful pathogenic bacteria like listeria are killed and therefore it is deemed safe to consume.
However, with a food culture trending towards healthier and natural ingredients, sales and production of processed cheese have fallen.
5. Our affinity for processed cheese has to do with World War II
Cheese became a staple for the soldiers during the First and Second World Wars. As a ration, processed cheese lasted longer than natural cheese and provided the essential protein needed to soldier. When World War II began, National Dairy Products Corporation, the company that owns Kraft, sold over one hundred million pounds of processed cheese to the US Army. The soldiers loved the mild, somewhat salty taste of the processed cheese. After the war, soldiers returned home and processed cheese reigned during an era of utility that popularized Wonder Bread, Spam, and other convenience foods.