What is Processed Cheese?

Melissa King

Processed cheese is also sometimes known as cheese food, prepared cheese or cheese slice in the United Kingdom. In the United States, it most commonly goes by the name American cheese. Processed cheese is a food product which begins with real cheese, such as cheddar or colby, and is created by adding ingredients such as food coloring, salt and emulsifiers. Processed cheese was created in 1911 by Swiss inventor Walter Gerber, but in 1916, American James L. Kraft received the first patent for his version of the product. In 1950, Kraft Foods began to sell the first sliced processed cheese.

Processed cheese usually contains cheddar or colby.
Processed cheese usually contains cheddar or colby.

Depending on the way in which the cheese is created and which additives it contains, processed cheese usually is labeled in one of three ways. Pasteurized process cheese typically must contain at least one type of real cheese, can contain one or more extra ingredients, and must not have a fat content lower than 47%. Pasteurized process cheese food usually cannot contain more than 51% optional cheese ingredients, can contain one or more dairy and nondairy ingredients, and must normally contain more than 23% fat and less than 44% moisture. Pasteurized process cheese spread can contain the same level of ingredients as the other two types, but it typically is spreadable at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), with a fat level above 20% and a moisture content between 44 and 60%.

Processed cheese is typically used in the making of pizza.
Processed cheese is typically used in the making of pizza.

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A fourth classification exists, called pasteurized process cheese product, for which the United States Food and Drug Administration does not maintain precise ingredient standards. This label is sometimes used by companies that wish to use milk protein concentrate (MPC), in their product. MPC is an inexpensive ingredient that, because it has not been significantly studied, cannot fall into the classification of either a dairy or nondairy product. In the US, companies that use MPC must use the “pasteurized process cheese product” label.

A burger topped with a slice of processed cheese.
A burger topped with a slice of processed cheese.

Processed cheese can have several benefits. It can remain on the shelf or be kept in the refrigerator for long periods of time without spoiling. If the packaging is unopened, the product may not even need to be kept cold, as normal cheese would. The cheese can be packaged for convenient use in a variety of ways, including jars, cans and as individual plastic-wrapped slices. The uniform shape and size of cheese slices can make them ideal for use on sandwiches and hamburgers, and they melt very smoothly for ease of use in cooking. Since many inexpensive ingredients can be used in its production, it is typically more economical to manufacture than regular cheese.

Some complaints are associated with processed cheese as well. For the most part, the cheese is only available in a few flavors, all of which are similar to one another and generally taste nothing like real cheese. There is little variation in the texture of the cheese, which is almost always smooth and soft. Concerns have been raised about the possible unhealthy qualities of processed cheese, since many products are made with oil, artificial colors and preservatives.

Processed foods which contain high levels of salt may cause hypertension.
Processed foods which contain high levels of salt may cause hypertension.

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Discussion Comments


A co-worker of mine once brought a batch of fudge to work. The principal ingredient was Velveeta Cheese. Seriously. No lie. One of my buddies tried some, said it was all right and turned green when I told him it was made from Velveeta. We all got a big laugh out of that.

Velveeta and its relatives are much maligned, but nothing makes better Rotel cheese dip than Velveeta. In the South, you can't have a football watching party at home without a slow cooker full of Rotel dip. Up North, they have buffalo wings at every party. In the Southeast, it’s Rotel.

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