Serious Eats

Taste Test: Are Low Fat Shredded Cheeses Worth The Calories?

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[Photographs: Carrie Vasios]

The prepackaged shredded Mexican cheese blend has been a staple of my life for as long as I can remember. Taco night? Mom always picked up a pack for the toppings bar. Late-night nachos in college? All we needed were some tortilla chips and a bag of blend. Same with the most basic of "quesadillas". It might not be authentic, but when I need a quick snack, a tortilla microwaved with some cheese blend inside has never steered me wrong.

Considering the frequency with which I consume this product, I've occasionally wondered whether or not I'd been doing myself a disfavor by never considering either the low fat, or the organic versions. So I picked up the three brands available at my grocery store—Sargento (one of the most popular supermarket brands), Organic Valley (one of the largest organic dairy producers), and Weight Watchers (who need no introduction)— and put them to the test.

The Criteria

So what makes a good Mexican cheese blend? In my view, it's a delicate balance between taste, texture, and ability to melt. You want a cheese blend that tastes, well, if not "Mexican"—authenticity doesn't seem to be the primary concern here—then still not simply like cheddar. Accepting that they mean Tex-Mex cheese blend, I'd say that it should be salty, with the lightly tangy yet smooth taste of most quesadilla filling cheeses.

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From left to right: Sargento, Weight Watchers, Organic Valley

The cut should be fine enough that it easily incorporates itself into the toppings on a taco or into the bean-y fabric of chili, but not so fine that the blend is grainy or sawdusty. On the other end of the spectrum, the blend shouldn't be too thick cut, the kind that forms into a hard, plasticky shell on whatever it tops. Above all, it must melt well, staying creamy and gooey, not broken or greasy.

The Results

I tasted all of my cheese both straight out of the plastic, and melted in the microwave. First, the plain tasting.

Sargento

This blend had the most white cheese in the mix as well as the thinnest shred. In the ingredients, monterey jack is listed first, then cheddar, queso quesadilla, and asadero cheese. These last two are presumably where the "real Mexican" flavor is supposed to come from. Queso quesadilla is an easy melting cheese from Northern Mexico named after the melted cheese sandwich. In most parts of Mexico, queso asadero is a white, semi-soft cheese used for melting. Taste-wise, this blend is salty with a prominent Monterey Jack flavor. When eaten plain, straight out of the package, it has a dusty texture that catches in the back of your throat.

Most pre-shredded cheeses come tossed in some sort of moisture-absorbing starchy coating to prevent them from forming a single large blob in the pack. It's not good to eat them without heating them first to gelatinize that starch.

Weight Watchers

This blend is made from reduced fat cheddar, monterey jack, asadero cheese, and queso quesadilla. It has a hard, plasticky texture and a thick cut. On its own, it doesn't taste like much, and comes in at about half the calories of Sargento.

Organic Valley

This is a blend of sharp cheddar, colby, and monterey jack cheeses. Yup. All three of those cheeses are American. (Colby is a cheddar-like cheese that was invented in Wisconsin.) Where's my asadero? Where's my throw-away pinch queso quesailla? Not surprisingly, this blend tastes just like cheddar cheese. It also had the dusty texture when eaten plain.

But the biggest question is, how well do they melt? By "well", I mean they melt easily and uniformly. They shouldn't turn into a puddle of grease but they also shouldn't stay locked together like a cheese shield. I also want something that's going to melt in time with my tortillas and chips heating. I decided that 20 seconds was about the average time that I'm melting cheese over chips—any more and the chips will get soggy, any less and most cheeses won't melt.

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From left to right: Sargento, Weight Watchers, Organic Valley

After 20 seconds in the microwave, the Sargento melted nicely. There were a few intact threads, but most had spread just to the point of being soft and melty. On the other hand, the Weight Watchers cheese didn't really melt at all, due to its low fat content.

At 19 seconds, I saw that the Organic Valley blend was bubbling to the point where I was afraid is was going to burn, so I made sure to pull open the microwave door as soon as the timer began to beep. In fact, I was so sure that I had saved it a nanosecond from a molten state that I tried it again. This time, after a full 20 seconds, I got this:

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Organic craters

The Organic Valley blend had quickly formed the dreaded cheese craters. The once bouncy cheese threads had become the sad, hard, pocked landscape of over-melted cheese. Flavor-wise, the heavy cheddar now resembled a generic pumped nacho sauce. Which, I suspect, is some people's preference.

My bottom line? Weight Watchers is definitely not worth the purported health benefits. It seems silly to try to shave calories off homemade nachos/quesadillas in the first place, but I'm sure plenty of people do it. My advice? Just use a regular cheese blend and a few less chips.

Organic Valley will also be staying out of my cart. I'm not looking for authenticity when I buy my Mexican cheese blend, but if I want preshredded cheddar, there are much better options. Sargento, on the other hand, will easily become my go-to blend. I've reminded myself why I never want to eat it plain—I might choke on the cheese dust—but for melting purposes, it's got everything I need.

What about you; what's your preferred blend of Mexican cheese?

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