Processed cheese (or process cheese) is a food product made from regular cheese and other unfermented dairy ingredients, plus emulsifiers, extra salt, and food colorings. Many flavors, colors, and textures of processed cheese exist. In the United States, the most recognizable variety of processed cheese is sold under the name American cheese, although this name also has other meanings.
Processed cheese was invented by James L. Kraft and awarded a patent in 1916 . Kraft Foods also created the first commercially available sliced process cheese, which was introduced in 1950. This form of sliced cheese with its derivatives were to become ubiquitous in America, most notably used for cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Processed cheese has three technical advantages over unprocessed cheese: extended shelf-life; resistance to separation when cooked; and the ability to reuse scraps, trimmings and runoff from other cheesemaking processes.
Traditional cheesemaking inevitably produces 'scrap' pieces that would not be acceptable for supermarket display; production of processed cheese from cheese scrap allows the cheesemaker to add value to otherwise unmarketable scrap. Processing can turn these scraps into new presentable shapes for repackaging and sale.
The use of emulsifiers in processed cheese results in cheese that melts smoothly when cooked. With prolonged heating unprocessed cheese will separate into a molten protein gel and liquid fat; processed cheese will not separate in this manner. The emulsifiers (typically sodium phosphate, monopotassium 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. It is a fairly popular condiment on hamburgers, as it does not run off, nor does it change in texture or taste as it is heated.
Processed cheese is often criticized for its small range of flavors, which is far narrower than the range for unprocessed cheeses and normally at the mild end of the flavor range. Processed cheese also normally lacks the range of textures available in unprocessed cheeses; processed cheeses are normally very smooth and medium-firm.
The list of artificial additives in processed cheeses and the higher levels of saturated fats and salts is another subject of criticism.
Sales and labeling
Due to the processing and additives, some varieties cannot legally be labeled as "cheese" in many countries, including the United States and Britain, and so are sold as "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 . The definitions include
- Pasteurized process cheese
- Pasteurized process cheese food
- Pasteurized process cheese spread
- Pasteurized process cheese product