Processed cheese or regular cheese? First, consider what you want to make with the cheese. A gooey grilled cheese sandwich wouldn't be the same if the slabs of regular cheese didn't melt. But add processed cheese between the slices of bread, and the silky texture melts like a dream. The same goes for cheeseburgers or any cheese-forward dish that needs a creamier cheese that's consistent in taste and appearance to regular cheese. The fact that processed cheese isn't 100 percent cheese is the reason.
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Defining Processed Cheese Food
Processed cheese goes by a number of different names, but all contain the word "processed." In the U.S., it is referred to as pasteurized process cheese or pasteurized process cheese food or pasteurized process cheese spread, according to Cheese, a site devoted to the appreciation of all cheeses. At its base is about 50 percent real cheese. Making up the balance are non-fermented dairy products such as salt, food dyes like annatto (to give the cheese its yellow coloring), emulsifiers that are thickening agents that hold the ingredients together, and even whey.
All of these additional ingredients give the cheese a longer shelf life due to the abundance of preservatives. It also makes the item less expensive than a block of real cheese. It doesn't get moldy, doesn't turn rancid, and oil doesn't separate from the cheese when it's melted. Called the "melt factor," processed cheese gives you that lovely pull of melted cheese when you bite into a grilled cheese sandwich.
Processed Cheese Products
There's nothing quite as satisfying to a macaroni and cheese lover as cutting into a packet of Velveeta cheese and pouring it over a pot of hot pasta. But Velveeta isn't cheese at all. It's whey protein, milk protein and a lot of preservatives. In fact, Kraft, the owner of Velveeta, was directed by the F.D.A. to change its labeling from "cheese spread" to "cheese product," according to PH Labs.
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese no longer contains artificial preservatives or synthetic colors, and instead, in response to a changing customer base that welcomes more natural ingredients, has added natural spices and coloring like paprika, annatto and turmeric. The same company makes Kraft Singles, slices of processed cheese food that, when added to a grilled cheese sandwich, stick to your teeth, proving it's the real, fake cheese.
Defining Real American Cheese
Natural cheese, such as that found in bricks at the grocery store, is exactly that – natural. Quality milk, salt, enzymes and natural colors comprise real American Cheese. Its shelf life is shorter than that of processed cheese and when it melts, the oils in the cheese separate. Natural American cheese does not contain chemicals or preservatives and is aged.
There are varieties of real American cheese, including mild, sharp and extra sharp. The difference in taste comes down to how long the cheese has aged. The longer the aging process, the sharper the taste. According to Cabot, a prominent cheese manufacturer, mild cheddar is aged two to three months while extra sharp needs to be aged for a year or more. Sharp cheddars also have a lower moisture content, resulting in a dry texture a longer melting time.