Is nacho cheese actually cheese?

NachoLabelIs it a food? Or just an edible substance?

Was there ever a time without nachos?  Hard to imagine.  They’re practically a national dish.  Despite the inherent messiness, nachos are giving popcorn a run for its money at movie theaters and sports venues.  How did this start?

It wasn’t always about cheese sauce.  According to several historical accounts of the invention of nachos, the first plate was made in Mexico in the early 1940’s, with real grated cheese.  While I can’t verify that any of these stories are true, they do all have one common feature: no “nacho cheese” sauce.

In 70+ years, we’ve gone from grated cheese to #10 cans and industrial-sized aseptic dispenser pouches of ‘nacho cheese’ sauce.  Just turn the spigot and douse your chips with a flood of cheesy-colored goo.  According to the ingredients’ list, water, soybean oil and food starch are the main ingredients.  There’s a bit of real cheese and a lot of flavorings, thickeners, food dye and preservatives.

One way to investigate how much actual cheese is in this stuff is to compare calories per gram protein.  Real cheese is a decent source of protein.  Once you start diluting the cheese with water and oil, the protein content goes down.

  • Real cheese: 17 calories per gram of protein
  • Nacho cheese sauce: 70 calories per gram of protein

So don’t count on nachos as a protein source.

Why does everyone use sauce?

Pure speculation on my part, but here are some possible/likely reasons nacho cheese sauce has become the norm:

  1. It’s a lot cheaper than real cheese
  2. It’s well preserved and doesn’t spoil, important for restaurants and food service
  3. It’s more predictable.  You glob it on the chips and heat it up.  You don’t get burned areas, or places where the sauce hasn’t melted. It’s always melted.
    1. It’s always melted; so when the plate cools off, the sauce it still “melted”, unlike real cheese, which would harden
    2. It’s always melted and soft, so easier to eat.
    3. Easier to wash the plate, important in a restaurant/food service situation.
  4. A big puddle of nacho cheese sauce looks impressive to customers, unlike a modest amount of melted cheese.  And because it’s cheap, you can afford to dump a big puddle of sauce on the chips.
  5. It’s easier for unskilled food service workers to deal with a dispenser of nacho cheese sauce than with real grated cheese.
  6. The taste (such as it is) is predictable.  In fact, now it’s the “norm” for nachos.  If you served real grated cheese, people would wonder what it was.  It’s a sad commentary on the state of our food supply.

So is “nacho cheese” actually cheese?

The answer is “NO”.  There is no official standard of identity for “nacho cheese” in the FDA’s list of more than 70 cheeses.  What most people call “nacho cheese” is a sauce, which may contain small amounts of real cheese.  It’s main nutritional attributes are fat, sodium and calories.

Will you ever find this stuff in my home? No, absolutely not.

Here’s a basic recipe for making your own nacho-flavored cheese sauce.  There are many such recipes on the internet.  It should taste fine, and you can adjust the seasonings to your liking.  Another benefit: it’s made with real food ingredients, not a bunch of chemicals and dyes.

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