So Exactly What Is American Cheese, Really?


Nacho cheese dip, a beloved staple at ballparks and movie theaters, wouldn't be the same without processed cheese. Try to make cheese dip by heating regular, natural cheese and the fats will melt away from the solids, leaving a deconstructed dairy product that's a lumpy, stringy, greasy mess.

Nacho cheese, as our BrainStuff host Jonathan Strickland explains in the above video, is best when made with processed cheese. And what's one of the most popular, affordable types of processed cheese? American cheese, those single slices of individually wrapped, square golden goodness.

American cheese has a long shelf life and is delightfully consistent in its melting abilities. What's the process behind this unnatural wonderfood? According to the United States Food and Drug Administration's super-specific legal definition of processed cheese, it must be made by pulverizing, mixing and heating cheese of one or more types with an emulsifier into a homogeneous mass that can be easily shaped or molded.

The melty properties of American cheese make it a favorite for burgers.
The melty properties of American cheese make it a favorite for burgers.
Christopher Hassiotis

Definitions aside, what are the actual ingredients in that slice of American cheese melting atop your veggie burger? Aside from a combination of cheeses, American cheese can contain water, salt, artificial color and flavorings, texture enhancers, mold inhibitors and, of course, emulsifying agents.

Emulsifying agents are molecules that make it possible for water and oil to mix and become stable. These agents also give processed cheese its smooth texture because they make water and oil play nice, separating globules of oil and water and suspending them evenly together. This helps the naturally occurring fats and waters in cheese stay blended, even when they're heated.

Emulsifying agents include such ingredients as monosodium phosphate, disodium phosphate, dipotassium phosphate, trisodium phosphate, sodium metaphosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphates and about a half-dozen similar additives. Other optional ingredients in American cheese include preservatives and a few ingredients that serve as cheese-making shortcuts to make the manufacturing process faster.

As long as American cheese and other processed cheeses contain moisture, fat and pH levels that closely resemble those of actual cheese ingredients, it can legally be called "pasteurized processed cheese." If the product is made from cheddar, washed curd, Colby or granular cheese, it can be labeled American cheese.

Other labels, like pasteurized processed cheese food, spread or product mean the amount of actual cheese in the finished food has been reduced, but still weighs in at 51 percent or more cheese. So, are these laboratory-inspired Frankencheeses, or delicious dairy-laced fun foods? You be the judge.

American cheese is the gooey product of choice for a grilled cheese sandwich.
American cheese is the gooey product of choice for a grilled cheese sandwich.
Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images