Is American cheese really cheese?

AmericanCheeseLet them eat $25 a pound artisanal goat cheese?

Last month the nutrition professional community was [shocked, appalled, horrified, astounded, outraged] to learn that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) had essentially endorsed Kraft Singles American cheese by granting it the right to use the official “Kids Eat Right” seal.  This meant that the processed cheese product was considered a healthy part of kids’ diets.  Nutritionists were outraged because:

  • Nutrition experts should not consider processed American cheese healthy, let alone fit to eat
  • The Academy should not be endorsing any products
  • Both of the above

The Main Stream Media and late night comedians made much of this for a day or two: “Haha!  Imagine nutrition experts endorsing a processed food!”  Dietitians remained outraged for several more days.  Shortly thereafter, the AND withdrew the endorsement.  All of which got me thinking about American cheese.

I grew up eating nothing but American cheese, as did 10’s of millions of other Baby Boomers.  It originally came in large blocks, and you used one of those wire cheese slicers to cut off slices to use in sandwiches or on cheeseburgers.  I have zero memory of any other kind of cheese in our home.  Kids liked it and it was inexpensive.

The history of American cheese is interesting.  Here’s a quick summary, gleaned from Wikipedia and some other sources:

  • Processed cheese was invented in the early 20th Century
  • Mr. James L. Kraft experimented with a variety of methods for making and packaging processed cheese, and patented one method in 1916, which involved re-processing cheddar cheese and mixing it with other ingredients.
  • Processed American Cheese was extremely popular in the US in the mid-20th Century.  It was a consistent flavor and texture and kept well.
  • Cheese manufacturers lobbied to prevent manufacturers from calling these products “cheese”.  Instead they’re referred to as “pasteurized cheese product”.
  • There are many varieties of processed cheese, and they’re made by mixing cheese with other ingredients like cream, milk, whey or albumin, as well as coloring, salt and other fats and emulsifiers.

Here’s another interesting fact: American cheese predictably melts really well, and as a result is the default choice for commercial cheeseburgers.  Artisanal cheese don’t always melt properly, and not at all in some cases.

You can’t find those large blocks of American cheese anymore.  Now we have everything packaged up in “singles”, because no one wants to slice cheese on their own.  In fact, no one wants to grate cheese either.  Check out the grated cheese section at the grocery store.  It’s twice the size of the block cheese section.

Nutrition comparison for 1 oz

                     calories     protein      fat     calcium
American cheese         94          5 gr       7 gr     193 mg
Cheddar cheese         115          7 gr      9.5 gr    191 mg
Kraft American cheese   90         4.5 gr      6 gr     200 mg

So is American cheese actually cheese?  Technically no.  It contains some cheese, but also lots of other stuff that cheese doesn’t.  The official standard of identity and labeling rules prohibit it from being called “cheese”, although the word cheese is usually included in the name.  Nutritionally speaking, processed American cheese products, such as Kraft Singles, aren’t that different from regular cheese.  They are made with cheese and other dairy ingredients after all.  When it comes to cheese spreads, non-fat processed cheese and other variations, all nutritional bets are off.

Frankly the AND should not be endorsing anything, whatever the degree of processing and whatever the beliefs of nutrition professionals and the main stream media.  But if you happen to like American cheese, you don’t need to feel guilty that you’re not putting $25/lb artisanal goat cheese on your burgers.

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