Processed cheese (also known as prepared cheese, cheese product, plastic cheese or cheese singles) is a food product made from cheese (and sometimes other, unfermented, dairy by-product ingredients); plus emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, extra salt, food colorings, and/or whey or sugar. As a result, many flavors, colors, and textures of processed cheese exist. Its invention is credited to Walter Gerber of Thun, Switzerland in 1911.
Processed cheese has several technical advantages over natural cheese, including: far longer shelf-life; resistance to separating when cooked; and, a uniform look and physical behavior. Its mass-produced nature provides arguably its greatest advantage over natural cheese: a dramatically lower cost — to producers and consumers, alike — than conventional cheesemaking. This is often due to ingredients that are more widely-varied and of lower quality. This, in turn, enables industrial-scale production volumes, lower distribution costs, a steadier supply, and much faster production time (compared to natural cheeses).
The use of emulsifiers in processed cheese results in a product that melts without separating when cooked; with prolonged heating, some natural cheeses (especially cheddar and mozzarella) will separate into a lumpy, molten protein gel & liquid fat combination. The emulsifiers (typically sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, tartrate, or citrate) reduce the tendency for tiny fat globules in the cheese to coalesce and pool on the surface of the molten cheese.
Because processed cheese does not separate when melted, it is used as an ingredient in a variety of dishes. Unlike some unprocessed cheeses, heating does not alter its taste and/or texture.
Sale and labeling
Processed cheese is often sold in blocks, pressurized cans, and packs of in individual slices, often separated by wax paper, or with each slice individually-wrapped by machine.
In 1916, James L. Kraft applied for the first U.S. patent for a method of making processed cheese. Kraft Foods developed the first commercially-available, shelf-stable, sliced, processed cheese; it was introduced in 1950. This form of sliced cheese (and its derivatives) have become ubiquitous in U.S. households ever since, most notably used for cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches because of its ability to cook evenly, distribute/stretch smoothly, and resist congealing — unlike natural, cheddar cheeses. Competitors referred to it as embalmed cheese. The first commercially-available, individually-wrapped, cheese slices were introduced in the U.S.A. by Clearfield Cheese Co. in 1956. US Pat. 2759308 by Arnold Nawrocki was assigned to Clearfield Cheese Co. in 1956.
The best known processed cheese in the United States is marketed as American cheese by Kraft Foods, Borden, and other companies. It is orange, yellow, or off-white; and mild, with a medium consistency, and melts easily. It is typically made from a blend of cheeses, most often Colby and Cheddar. Another type of processed cheese created in the United States is Provel pasteurized processed pizza cheese, which uses Cheddar, Swiss, and provolone cheeses as flavorants. Provel cheese is commonly used in St. Louis-style pizza. A third variety of processed pizza cheeses are Mozzarella-like imitation processed cheeses, which are sometimes used in frozen pizzas.
Owing to its highly mechanized (i.e., assembly line) methods of production, and additive ingredients (e.g., oils, salts, colors), some softer varieties of processed cheese cannot legally be labeled as actual "cheese" in many countries -- even those in which slightly harder varieties can be. Such products tend to be classified "cheese food", "cheese spread", or "cheese product" (depending primarily on the amount of cheese, moisture, and milkfat present in the final product).
In the United States, processed cheese is defined, categorized, and regulated by the Food & Drug Administration under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (Food and Drugs), Section 133 (Cheeses and Cheese Related Products). Pasteurized process cheese can be made from a single cheese (solid, or powdered), or a blend of several cheeses. Cream, milkfat, water, salt, artificial color, oils (for consistency and texture), and spices may also be added. The mixture is heated with an emulsifier, poured into a mold, and allowed to cool. The definitions include:
- Pasteurized process cheese, which is made from one or more cheeses (excluding certain cheeses such as cream cheese and cottage cheese but including American cheese), and which may contain one or more specified "optional ingredients" (includes both dairy and nondairy items). Moisture not more than 41%; fat in the solids, not less than 49%.
- Pasteurized process cheese food, which is made from not less than 51% by final weight of one or more "optional cheese ingredients" (similar to the cheeses available for Pasteurized process cheese), mixed with one or more "optional dairy ingredients" (milk, whey, etc.), and which may contain one or more specified "optional ingredients" (nondairy). Moisture must be <44%, and fat content >23%.
- Pasteurized process cheese spread, which is made similarly to pasteurized process cheese food but must be spreadable at 70° F. Moisture must be between 44% and 60%, and fat content >20%.
The US Food & Drug Administration does not maintain a standard of identity for "'Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product'", a designation which particularly appears on many Kraft products. Neither does the FDA maintain a standard of identity for "'Pasteurized Process Cheese Product'" (emphasis on the trailing "Product"), a designation which appears particularly on many American store- and generic-branded singles. Products labeled as such may use milk protein concentrate (MPC) in the formulation, an ingredient which does not appear in the above FDA definitions. The desire to use inexpensive imported milk protein concentrate is noted as motivation for the introduction of these and similar terms, and for the relabeling of some products. After an FDA Warning Letter protesting Kraft's use of MPC in late 2002, some varieties of Kraft Singles formerly labeled "Pasteurized Process Cheese Food" became "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product", Velveeta was relabeled from "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread" to "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product", and Easy Cheese from "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread" to "Pasteurized Cheese Snack".
- "Emmi Gerber - Über Gerber:". Emmi Fondue AG. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
- "Kraft Foods Corporate Timeline". Kraft Foods Group, Inc. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
- Hulin, Belinda (2007). The Everything Pizza Cookbook: 300 Crowd-Pleasing Slices of Heaven. F+W Publications, Inc. p. 7. ISBN 1598692593. Retrieved September 30, 2012.
- Barry A. Law; A. Y. Tamime, eds. (24 June 2011). Technology of Cheesemaking. John Wiley & Sons. p. 355. ISBN 978-1-4443-4789-0.
- Under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (Food and Drugs), Article 133, Section 169 (Pasteurized process cheese), the allowed usage of the term "American Cheese" for certain types of "Pasteurized process cheese" is detailed. Specifically, in paragraph (e)(2)(ii) of section 133.169, it states In case it is made of cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, or granular cheese or any mixture of two or more of these, it may be designated "Pasteurized process American cheese"; or when cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese, or any mixture of two or more of these is combined with other varieties of cheese in the cheese ingredient, any of such cheeses or such mixture may be designated as "American cheese."U.S. Food and Drug Administration (April 1, 1999). "Title 21, Article 133". U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 2007-02-17.
- Refer to U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (Food and Drugs) Article 133 (Cheeses and Cheese Related Products) at the U.S. Government Printing Office.
- "U.S. Imports of Concentrated Milk Proteins: What We Know and Don't Know?", Jesse, Marketing and Policy Briefing Paper No. 80, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison Cooperative Extension, University of Wisconsin-Extension, February 2003. Accessed 8 February 2010.
- "What is 'Real Kraft Cheese'?", Chicago Business, February 5, 2007. Accessed 9 February 2010.
- WARNING LETTER CHI-6-03, U.S. Food and Drug Administration to Kraft Foods North America, Inc. 18 December 2002. Accessed 9 February 2010.
- American Chemical Society article on processed cheese.
- "From Cheese to Cheese Food: How Kraft persuaded Americans to accept cheese by divorcing it from its microbe-laden origins", American Heritage, January 2001
- "Calories in Cheese", Super Skinny Me website