What Is American Cheese, Anyway?

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A proper cheeseburger. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

It happens every time I post a picture on Twitter or Instagram of a delicious cheeseburger—perfectly crusted ground beef (most likely cooked smashed-style) on a soft bun, layered with onions, lettuce, pickles...and then a glistening, gooey, melty, bright orange slice of American cheese.

I'm guaranteed to be met with What is that plastic on top of your burger?!?

or

How can anyone with good taste put that crap on their grilled cheese?

or

Please enlighten us as to why plastic cheese is not a sin on a burger, it's the plastic joke turd of food world #notcheese

Don't get me wrong. Not every burger or grilled cheese I eat is made with American cheese, and there are times when I'm happy with a slab of sharp cheddar, a slice of Comté, or a crumble of Roquefort on top. But if I had to pick one cheese to stock in my burger joint, you're damn right it's gonna be American. No other cheese in the world can touch its meltability or goo factor, and that's really what it's there for: texture. If I've taken the time to select and grind some great beef, I want that beef flavor to shine, not get covered up by a powerful cheese that would fare better on a cheese plate.

The greatest burgers I've ever eaten are well-seared patties of loose ground beef, bound together with nothing but a lot of hope and a little American cheese.

Mais non! American cheese is not cheese! the cheese police cry out. And they have a point. American cheese—even the "fancy" stuff you can get sliced at the deli counter—is not exactly cheese. But here's the thing. Saying "American cheese is not cheese" is like saying "meatloaf is not meat." Just as meatloaf is a product that is made by blending real meat with texture- and flavor-altering ingredients, so American cheese is a product made by blending real cheese with texture- and flavor-altering ingredients. In fact, percentage-wise, there's a good chance that there's more milk and cheese in your American cheese slices than there is meat in your meatloaf!

I'm not going to try to convince you that American cheese is the greatest culinary gift this country has bestowed upon the world (it's not). I'm not going to try to convince you that American cheese is just as complex in flavor as a great cheddar or Tomme (it isn't). I'm not even going to try to convince you that if you don't like American cheese, you probably just haven't had a great cheeseburger or grilled cheese (though you probably haven't). But I am going to try to clear up some misconceptions about what American cheese really is and how to identify it in the wild.

Ready for some details?

What Is American Cheese?

Cheez Whiz being slathered onto a Philly cheesesteak. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Let's get one thing straight. When I say American cheese, I am referring specifically to process American cheese. The kind that comes either in individual slices from the refrigerated dairy case or sliced off of a rectangular block at the deli counter. There are many incredible cheeses produced in America—some of the finest in the world, like Humboldt Fog, Moses Sleeper, and Bent River. They may be great cheeses that are American, but they are not "American cheese."

Let's get another thing straight. All cheese is processed. All of it. It is a man-made product that does not exist in nature. Even the simplest cheese, like halloumi, is made by treating milk (whether from a cow, a sheep, a goat, or even a human) with rennet (an enzyme typically taken from the stomach lining of an unweaned calf, or, increasingly, vegetable-based enzymes with similar properties), draining the resulting curds, and pressing them together. More complex cheeses go through further steps of processing. Mozzarella and queso Oaxaca are kneaded and stretched, for instance. Gruyère and Comté are washed with a bacteria-infested brine called morge.

Most cheeses are inoculated with bacteria and allowed to ferment and age, during which time they develop flavor and rinds and lose moisture.

Heating, curdling, pressing, inoculating, aging...those are all processes.

Where American cheese (or "Pasteurized Process American Cheese," as the FDA likes to call it*) differs is that once the cheese is made (and yes, American cheese starts with real, honest-to-goodness cheese), it is blended with a few other ingredients to alter its texture and flavor. The exact details of these subsequent processes are what determines the labeling on the package, and those can be as simple as blending it with another cheese or as complex as melting it with additional whey, milk proteins, and emulsifying salts. This is what allows American cheese to melt without breaking or turning greasy the way a traditional cheese does. (You can read more about the science of melting cheese in this excerpt from my book.)

* Oddly, one of the USDA stipulations for process American cheese destined for use in government programs is that none of the ingredients shall have previously been property of the government, meaning that the phrase "government cheese" does not actually apply to government cheese...until it becomes government cheese.

The process itself was invented in Switzerland, in an effort to reduce cheese waste; scraps from various batches of cheese could be melted together and formed into a new, delicious product. In 1916, Canadian-American entrepreneur and cheese salesman James Kraft perfected the technique in the US, patented it, and started selling the very first process American cheese. It soon became immensely popular due to its long shelf life and easy shipping.

Cheese products have since proliferated into the vast diaspora that populates the refrigerated cases of your supermarket, and labeling laws do only a cursory job of keeping them all in order. Here's what you might see.

Reading the Labels

Melty American cheese products come in a variety of shapes and forms, and in the US, the labeling of these foods is defined by the Food and Drug Administraion (FDA). So what's the difference between a "cheese food" and a "cheese spread," and where does pasteurization or processing come into play?

Pasteurization is the process of heat-treating milk in order to destroy any harmful organisms. Despite what some folks may claim, it has been demonstrated that pasteurized milk is just as nutritious as raw milk. Flavor, however, can vary, though it's difficult to judge exactly how much flavor difference you'll notice in a heavily processed food like cheese (and I'm talking all cheeses now, not just those labeled "process"). In the US, raw-milk cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days to be sold. The Brie, mozzarella, and ricotta you're eating are all made from pasteurized milk, just like American cheese.

Suffice it to say, unless you're carefully scanning the labels, you probably don't know whether the cheese you're eating is pasteurized or not.

Processing is, well, that. It's taking one thing and tinkering with it so that it comes out the other end altered in some way.

The government is quite specific about what must go into a food in order for it to get certain labels, and the United States Government Publishing Office provides a wonderfully transparent database of all of the Food and Drug Administration's labeling laws. Here's how those labels break down:

American Cheese Labels**

Label Definition Examples (NB: Some of these products have new labeling; see the text below the table)
Pasteurized Process Cheese A food prepared by melting one or more cheeses (most commonly cheddar and/or Colby) together along with optional additional ingredients, such as cream, water, salt, approved coloring, or spices, as well as an emulsifying agent (commonly sodium or potassium citrate or monosodium phosphate, though a number of other salts can be used). The level of quality and flavor within this category can vary greatly. The precise definition runs over 2,000 words and includes stipulations for moisture (no more than 43%) and fat content (no less than 47%) of various process cheeses. Deli-sliced American cheeses, such as Boar's Head or Land O'Lakes, as well as some packaged cheese slices, such as Kraft Deli Deluxe.
Pasteurized Process Cheese Food Similar to process cheese, but with a higher percentage of "approved" added ingredients allowed. The final product must have a fat content of no less than 23% and a moisture content of no more than 44%, with a minimum actual cheese content of 51%. Kraft Singles.
Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread A process cheese, with a minimum of 51% cheese, a moisture content between 44 and 60%, and a milk fat content of at least 20%, that remains spreadable at 70°F (21°C). Block cheeses intended for macaroni and cheese, like Velveeta; cheese spreads, like Alouette or Laughing Cow; Cheez Whiz; Easy Cheese.
Pasteurized Process American Slices Here's where we get into true #notcheese territory. "American slices" are vegetable oil–based products that are meant to mimic the meltability and flavor of actual American cheese. They do a pretty poor job at both. American Sandwich Slices, Tropical Sandwich Slices, Valu Time Sandwich Slices, or anything else that doesn't have the word "cheese" in it.

** By the way, if you think these rules are intense, you should check out the appellation d'origine contrôlée rules set by the French government for cheese labeling. They are far more rigorous!

One interesting thing to note is that all of the FDA's definitions for these various process cheese products stipulate that the cheeses and optional ingredients be mixed into a "homogeneous plastic mass." The word plastic is right there, and it's something that alarmists and natural-food advocates jump on to prove American cheese's fakeness. However, this is just a case of unfortunate word choice. The word "plastic" used as an adjective simply describes something that is "easily shaped or molded." By that definition, pretty much all cheese is plastic.

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Gooey stovetop macaroni and cheese, made with American and cheddar cheeses. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

If you actually took this list of labels into a modern supermarket, you'd be surprised to see that many products don't fall into any of those categories. US manufacturers like to play games with labeling laws. According to this paper, back in 2003 Kraft changed the label on its Singles from the FDA-controlled "Pasteurized Process Cheese Food" to the unregulated "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product," and Easy Cheese changed its labeling from "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread" to "Pasteurized Cheese Snack," reportedly in order to be able to use inexpensive imported milk protein concentrate (MPC) in its formulation. Even Kraft's "fancier" American cheese, the Deli Deluxe line of products, is sometimes labeled "Prepared Cheese Product."

Kraft is not the only company to get around labeling laws in this manner, which means that if you really want to get a handle on what's in a cheese, you're going to have to look at more than just the name of the product, and dive into the ingredients list itself.

Reading the Ingredients

At first glance, the list of ingredients on a package of American cheese may seem long and frightening, but banishing that fear is just a matter of understanding the terms and realizing that just because something sounds like a chemical doesn't mean it's necessarily bad.

Let's first agree upon what we mean by the word "chemical." When concerned eaters claim that "[X food] is full of chemicals," it's inevitable that some smarty-pants keyboard warrior is going to respond with "Everything is chemicals!" or "Did you know your organic carrot is filled with dihydrogen monoxide—the main chemical constituent in acid rain!", and pat themselves on the back for being clever. Picking at someone's choice of words is a good way to feel superior, but a poor way to convince them that chemicals are not the enemy.

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Texas-style queso dip, made with process cheese. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Moreover, despite the ironic pedantry, the folks who say that everything is chemicals are missing something important: context. By the strict, chemists' definition of the word "chemical," yes, everything is made of chemicals. But when we're talking about the ingredients in food, there is a clear distinction between complex ingredients found in nature like milk and chicken and wheat, and chemical ingredients that have either been synthesized or extracted and purified from a natural source.*** With this common vernacular usage of the term "chemical," not everything is made up of chemicals. A chemist may say that when you dig deep enough, a chicken sandwich is made from chemicals, but to say that is to render the word "chemical" meaningless in this context. A chicken sandwich is not made from chemicals, at least, not in any sense of the word that would allow us to have a meaningful discussion about chickens, sandwiches, and ingredients lists.

***Like with everything, gray areas exist, especially when it comes to labeling. "purified cane juice," "sugar," and "sucrose" are all the same chemical, yet some appear more "natural" than others. One of the dangers of assuming "natural" is good and "chemical" is bad.

It's a similar situation when a botanist points out that eggplants or tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. Technically correct from a very narrow viewpoint, but largely irrelevant and I would argue incorrect in conversations about food.

The real question is, are chemicals necessarily bad for you?

The answer is, well, it depends. Some are, some are not. Some are bad in small quantities. Some are bad only in large quantities. Some are bad immediately, some take years or decades to harm you. Some will harm you outright, some will merely increase the odds that something bad will happen to you. Eating foods with chemicals, like anything in life, is a matter of balancing the potential downsides with the benefits. Informing yourself on what those chemicals really are is the first step.

Here's a list of all the ingredients—both chemical and nonchemical—you'll find in a standard package of American cheese and what they're there for. The ingredients are listed in order of largest constituency by mass to smallest.

Bring your flashlights and security blankets, because things are about to get scary! Just kidding. There's nothing scary here.

American Cheese Ingredients, Explained

Ingredient What it is
Milk This is milk. The liquid squeezed out of the teats of cows. The stuff you buy in cartons in the refrigerated section. Moo juice. Got it? Incidentally, if you're buying your milk at a supermarket, it has been processed through either pasteurization, homogenization, or, more likely, both of those.
Whey The protein-rich, watery portion of milk. It's what's left over after cheese-making or butter-churning.
Milk Fat The creamy portion of the milk. If you've ever had a bottle of non-homogenized milk and seen the creamy milk fat floating at the top, you know what this is. Heck, if you've ever seen a stick of butter, you know what this is.
Calcium Phosphate Uh-oh, we're entering into scary chemical territory here. But don't worry, this first one is easy! Calcium phosphate is the main form of calcium found in bovine milk. It's the stuff that our bones and teeth are made of.
Salt Another chemical. There are many chemical salts, but when we see "salt" in an ingredient list or a cookbook, we're talking about NaCl, or sodium chloride. It's a rock we've been eating since...well, since forever. Without it, we'd die.
Sodium Citrate Now we're into true unfamiliar territory here, but only if you've never looked at a package. Sodium citrate is an extremely common emulsifying salt that is used to keep the cheese creamy as it melts. It's thanks to this little molecule that American cheese won't break, instead staying glossy and gooey no matter how much you seem to heat it and cool it down. Outside of cheese, you've enjoyed its emulsifying power in bratwurst or Italian sausages. You've liked its mildly acidic and saline flavor in club soda. You've probably tasted it in ice cream, jams, jellies, powdered drinks, and even wine!
Sodium Phosphate Another emulsifying salt that is also widely used as a leavening agent in baked goods (think: baking powder). Taken in its pure form, it's also an effective constipation treatment (but don't worry, the quantities in cheese aren't going to loosen you up too much).
Sorbic Acid This is an organic acid used as a preservative. It's widely used in food preparation and found naturally in various fruits and plants. This is what gives American cheese a nice stable shelf life, and it's only allowed in "consumer-sized" packages of cheese. If you want to avoid it for any reason, you won't find it in the stuff behind the deli counter.
Cheese Culture The bacterial culture added to curdled milk to help it turn into cheese. All true cheeses are made with cheese cultures, and remember, American cheese starts as real, honest-to-goodness cheese.
Enzymes Another ingredient used in all cheese-making. These are the enzymes, like rennet, that are added to cause milk to coagulate and form curds.
Annatto Extract Annatto is the berry of a Central American shrub that is widely used for coloring (it's what gives cochinita pibil its intense red color). This is why many American cheese slices are yellow; white American contains no coloring. Many classic cheeses use coloring in similar ways. You think that cheddar or mimolette is naturally orange? Think again!
Vitamin D3 This is a vitamin that is produced naturally in your skin, but is sometimes added to foods because some of us spend too much time arguing the semantics of American cheese on the internet and thus don't get enough sunlight to produce our own vitamin D. Eat your vitamins!

Speaking of sodium citrate, buy yourself a little pouch of the stuff and you, too, can make perfectly creamy, gooey, melty cheese slices and macaroni and cheese at home, using whatever cheese you'd like! (Or use my recipe for melty American-style cheese slices to make it without any sodium citrate.)

As G.I. Joe teaches us, knowing is half the battle, but the question still remains as to whether these additives are truly safe. Well, the government says so, and American cheese has been around an awfully long time. That said, I'm still a skeptic, and that extends to the things I put in my body. I enjoy American cheese on an occasional basis—about as often as I eat a hamburger. I figure that whatever small, unknown danger those chemicals might present is dwarfed by the very well-known dangers of eating too much saturated fat, dairy, and meat. Some folks also like to avoid modern process cheeses made with MPC, since it's often imported from countries with less rigid safety standards or oversight. This is a valid concern!

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A pizza from Imo's in St. Louis, topped with Provel, an American process cheese unique to that city. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

As I said at the beginning, my goal has been only to clear up misconceptions around American cheese and its production. If you thought it was gross to begin with, I doubt I did a good job of convincing you that it's not. For me, it's all about context. There are times when I crave a fancy, true cheese, and there are times when only an oozing slice of American will do. One does not replace the other, and they need not be compared with each other for us to enjoy them both.

And to all you cheese snobs out there, let's cut a deal, okay? You stop telling me what fancy-pants cheese to put on top of my cheeseburger, and I won't ask you to put American Singles on your cheese plate.