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What Exactly is in American Cheese?

Editor
It’s not as mysterious as it appears

Nearly every refrigerator in America has some American cheese in it, be it Kraft Singles, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, or some other rubbery yellow food product that melts really well. But as we all know, American cheese isn’t exactly cheese in the purest sense of the term, like a good fontina or Camembert. So… what is it, exactly?

Let’s use Kraft Singles as an example. It actually can’t be called “cheese” according to government standards, so instead it’s called “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food,” meaning (among other things) that it must have a fat content of no less than 23 percent, a moisture content of no more than 44 percent, and an actual cheese content of 51 percent. So this means that more than half of Kraft Singles is in fact real cheese.

So what are the ingredients in Kraft Singles? Let’s break it down one by one:

Milk
Milk is… milk.

Whey
Whey is the liquid that’s left over after butter-churning or milk-making; it’s very high in protein

Salt
Table salt.

Cheese Culture
A bacterial culture that’s added to all cheese during the first stages of the cheesemaking process.

Enzymes
Another necessary ingredient in all cheesemaking, enzymes like rennet cause the milk to coagulate.

All of the above are the essential ingredients used to make real cheese. Here's what else is added:

Milk Fat
The fat in milk. Butter, basically.

Calcium Phosphate
This is the calcium that’s found in dairy, the stuff that does a body good.

Sodium Citrate
This is an emulsifier that holds the cheese together; it’s also used in everything from sausage to ice cream.

Sodium Phosphate
Another emulsifier; it’s also used as a leavening agent in some baked goods.

Sorbic Acid
A naturally-occurring preservative.

Annatto Extract
A natural yellow-orange food coloring.

Vitamin D3
Added as a nutritional supplement.

So yes, American cheese has a couple additional ingredients to help it congeal nicely and melt in that perfectly melty way, but in reality, it’s not too different from plain old cheese. 

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