There comes a time in everyone’s life when they ask an age-old question about the world’s most questionable unaged dairy product: What even is American Cheese?
Is it orange plastic flavored like milk and salt? Is it just solidified, thickened, rubbery milk solids dyed orange for our visual pleasure? Or, rather, is it just plain old cheese that melts like the heart of a hopeless romantic and tastes like deliciously creamy, salty milk?
What is American cheese NOT?
Let’s bust a myth once and for all: American cheese is not made of plastic. I don’t know what your childhood best friend’s health nut mom told you, but that salty, orange square on your daily turkey sandwich was indeed food and not plastic. This confusion may come from the FDA’s definitions of various processed cheese products, which say that the cheeses and other added ingredients (such as whey, milk solids, and emulsifying agents) in pasteurized process cheese food products a must be mixed into a “homogeneous plastic mass.” People are quick to take this and say, “Nyah nyah, even the FDA says it’s plastic, I’ll never eat that—I’m not a 1971 Malibu Barbie, I’m a real boy.” But in this case, the word plastic isn’t being used as a noun to refer to the non-biodegradable material car bumpers are made out of. Rather, it’s being used as an adjective meaning something that is “capable of being molded or modeled.” So if you think about it in those terms, fruit rollups are plastic, some chocolate is plastic, fondant and marzipan are plastic, Cream of Wheat (if you make it dry enough) is plastic, and, yes, a lot of different cheeses (not just American) are also plastic. My body may be a temple but this temple allows for pasteurized processed cheese foods. This brings us to the next big question …
Alright then, what IS American Cheese?
Well, the short answer is that it is cheese. The slightly longer answer, according to J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats, is that it’s cheese that has been “blended with a few other ingredients to alter its texture and flavor.” But what are those “other ingredients”? Nothing crazy; just “additional whey, milk proteins, and emulsifying salts.” And if the term “emulsifying” scares you, don’t worry, that’s just the stuff that makes the water-soluble milk-solid part of the cheese able to stay together with the fat in the cheese. Emulsifiers are precisely what allow American cheese to melt and become almost sauce like, while cheddar can separate into an oily mess when melted.
Where does American cheese come from?
Turns out its origins are not the most American at all. The cheese we know today was inspired by a practice used in Switzerland, wherein people would melt down all of their cheese scraps into one big franken-cheese. Then a Canadian-American named James Kraft (ring a bell?) perfected the process and started selling “American Cheese” in the U.S. back in 1916. So this stuff is not some newfangled chemical concoction, in fact, it’s oldfangled. It predates WWII … and that’s pretty old.
American cheese is a beautiful thing. It is versatile enough to be a cheese, or when melted, a sauce. I can (and have) eaten it plain from the fridge and I have zero regrets about it. Is it the healthiest thing at the grocery store? Heck no, but neither is cheese. So eat what you want and don’t let anyone tell you it’s plastic.