What is Processed Cheese?

Processed Cheese - The Cheese Shark

Have you ever been given the option between “American” or “Cheddar” as a burger topping in a restaurant? 

We are all familiar with brands of processed cheese. Often consumers don’t know the difference between processed cheese and regular cheese and wonder why regular cheese is so expensive. What is in processed cheese and how is it made? With this article, I will shed some light.

What is Processed Cheese?

Processed cheese is a dairy product resulting from mixing and heating several natural cheeses with suitable emulsifying agents into a uniform plasticity and following this with air cooling.
It may contain extra salt, vegetable oils, spices, colouring, flavourings, or sugars. (From: Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods, Frank V. Kosikowski)

There are 4 types of processed cheese available:

Slices, often called American singles, used as a topping for burgers and sandwiches.
Spreads come in a jar, small triangle, or square portions.
Imitations of regular cheese
Blocks for foodservice and industrial use

The History of Processed Cheese

The Swiss cheese distributor and exporter, Walter Gerber, invented the idea of the processed cheese in 1911. It took him until 1913 to create a recipe that was the foundation of today’s processed cheese industry. The term “Gerber Cheese” still refers to a large variety of processed cheeses made in Switzerland and distributed all over the world.

As a cheese exporter, Gerber’s problem was that Swiss cheese exported into hot countries did not last. The cheese would “sweat”, which means the fat was melting and exiting the cheese and the cheese would then get moldy.
The original idea behind processed cheese was to create a product that would last for months without refrigeration. Later it became a way to make use of cheese that was reaching its expiry date, cheese that was deformed, or had visual defects.

The first processed cheese was made in 1913 in Switzerland. In 1916 Cheddar was being processed in the USA, created and patented by the Canadian James Kraft. By 1920 it was produced in several countries around the world. These early processed cheeses were packaged in aluminum cans and can be called one of the first convenience products. By 1930 the first foil-wrapped processed cheeses were available, in round cardboard packages similar to today’s packaging. By 1950 the American singles were created. Over the years many variations hit the market, like with walnuts, smoked salmon, strawberries, and many more.

Consumption

Cheese consumption in North America has been on the rise for the past 20 years, including processed cheese. In 2010 processed cheese reached a low of 3.5 lbs per person, which increased to over 5 lbs per person by 2019; However, retail sales of processed cheese have not recovered much since 2010, it’s the large increase in the food-service sector that has made up for the increase.

Personally, I think consumers are better educated and are leaning towards buying specialty cheeses rather than processed cheese. When eating out, consumers seem less picky and don’t mind, or don’t notice, processed cheese in their meal.
In Europe, cheese consumption is fluctuating within 10% each year and hasn’t shown significant growth. Overall, processed cheese consumption in Europe is lower than 10 years ago.

Ingredients in Processed Cheese

The following ingredients are typically found in processed cheese:

  • Regular Cheese:
    About 55% of the ingredients are real cheeses (anywhere from 51% to 60%). The types of cheese used in processing vary and depend on the taste and flavour of the desired end product. Processed cheese is made of good quality cheese as an ingredient, though the selection is often made with cheese that is not easy to market. The processed cheese industry is a good way to use cheese trims, scraps, and under or oversized pieces. Cheeses that have defects in fat or moisture content and don’t meet the labeling requirements, find their way into processed cheese. Overstocked cheese is also used before it expires and can no longer be sold.
    For more detail on the cheese sources see the bottom of this article *.
What is Processed Cheese - The Cheese Shark
  • Water:
    Water is an important ingredient in processed cheese. Since processed cheese comes with different moisture levels, water is needed to adjust the levels. An example would be a glass of spreadable processed cheese. It contains more water than a slice of singles.
  • Modified Milk Ingredients:
    These are milk ingredients, typically of powdered nature, and have been somewhat modified. Examples are whey powders, protein concentrate, cream or butter powders. Modified milk ingredients are used to create consistent moisture, fat, and protein content in the end product. Since natural cheeses with different components are used in the process, modified milk ingredients are needed to make sure the end product is uniform.
  • Stabilizers:
    Stabilizers are used to thicken the product and to keep the texture consistent once the processed cheese is packaged. Examples of stabilizers are carrageenan, guar, locust bean gum, maltodextrin, gelatin, or agar.
  • Emulsifiers:
    Without emulsifiers, processed cheese can’t be made. They help mix the water with the fat and prevent fats and proteins from separating from the cheese during the heating process. Emulsifiers typically are salts. Examples are sodium citrate, disodium phosphate, trisodium phosphate, and sodium phosphate.
  • Salt:
    Regular salt is added to enhance taste and flavour. Processed cheese is very salty, it contains at least double the sodium amount of regular cheese.
  • Flavouring:
    Since cheeses of different age and sharpness are mixed, flavouring agents, or enzymes like lipase, are added to give the cheese a uniform taste.
  • Colouring:
    Without food colouring, processed cheese would have a greyish, yellowish, and very inconsistent colour. Food colouring is used to make the cheese look appealing and consistent in appearance. Orange and yellow are the most used colours, but some processed cheeses come in a pure white.
  • Preservatives:
    Processed cheese has a shelf life of several months, often without refrigeration needed. The main reason for that is that the product is packaged in an aseptic way. Despite that, acids are used to drop the acidity to make the product last longer and prevent mould growth.
  • Spices, fruit, or unique flavours:
    Processed cheese comes in many varieties, like with herbs, mushrooms, or fruit.

The Process of Making Processed Cheese

There are 7 basic steps in the manufacturing of processed cheese:

  1. Selection:
    The natural cheese must be carefully selected. Since it contains a mixture of several types of cheese, to achieve consistent quality they have to be carefully selected. Typically, a processed cheese mix contains about 55% young cheese, 35% medium-aged, and 10% aged cheese.
  2. Component analysis:
    The fat and moisture content of the selected cheeses needs to be analyzed. This is important so the manufacturer knows how much of the other ingredients, including water, need to be added to achieve the legal moisture and fat requirements.
  3. Cleaning:
    The selected cheeses need to be cleaned and scraped. This includes the removal of mould spots, wax, or other packaging materials left.
  4. Grinding:
    The cheeses are now run through massive cheese grinders. Large wheels are first cut into quarters. The ground cheese is forced through rollers that reduce the cheese into fine particles.
  5. Mixing:
    All dry ingredients like emulsifiers, stabilizers, flavouring, and colouring agents are added and blended in big mixers into the cheese.
  6. Heating and emulsifying:
    Now water is added to the cheese and the cheese mix is being heated. The cheese starts to melt and, due to the emulsifiers, becomes a homogeneous, smooth mass. The high temperature kills all microorganisms, making a sterile product.
  7. Packaging:
    The hot cheese is now filled into moulds and then further sliced or cut into consumer or foodservice size packages. Then the packages are cooled. The cheese is now ready for distribution.
How to Make Processed Cheese - The Cheese Shark
How to Make Cheese Spread - The Cheese Shark

Nutritional Value of Processed Cheese

Processed cheese contains more water than regular cheese. The spreadable versions contain more water than the slices. Whenever you look at the nutritional value of cheese, the water content has to be taken into consideration. Hard cheeses contain more protein and fat than soft cheeses, due to their lower water content.

Let’s compare processed cheese to mozzarella.

Nutritional panels are often confusing because they don’t always show the values per consistent serving size. Most cheeses show a serving size of 30g per cube. Kraft singles, however, show the values per single which are 19g. In this comparison I changed the values so they are both shown per 19g serving.

Is Processed Cheese Bad for me - The Cheese Shark

You see that the values are very similar. What catches my eye is the sodium content. The reason why processed cheese is much higher in sodium is because of the emulsifiers, which are salts. Keep in mind that these tables are created based on adults. If a child eats a lot of processed cheese, along with other salty foods, the sodium level can soon become higher than recommended. Some processed cheese contains sugars which can be problematic for certain diets.

Commonly Used Processed Cheeses and their Applications

Singles: 
Singles are individually wrapped, orange or white processed cheese slices that fit perfectly on a sandwich or a burger bun. They melt very easily and evenly.

Processed Cheese Slices - The Cheese Shark
Processed Cheese Spread - The Cheese Shark

Spreads:
Yellow or orange cheese spreads are usually sold in a glass container or a spray can.

Cheese powders:
Cheese powder that comes as a topping ingredient for mac and cheese products.

Processed Cheese Powder - The Cheese Shark
Wrapped Cheese Triangles - The Cheese Shark

Individually wrapped triangles or squares:
Triangles are sold in a round cardboard box, containing 10 to 12 processed cheese pieces, individually wrapped. Squares come in a square box. Often each piece has a different flavour. These types of processed cheese are usually white or have the colour of the flavouring.

Blocks:
This can be misleading. If it is a processed cheese, it should say on the label “processed.” Processed cheese blocks are mainly used for food service or industrial use; however, you can find some common cheese names in a processed version like this picture of processed smoked Gouda.
These cheeses don’t have much in common with their ‘real cheese’ counterparts.

Processed Cheese Blocks - The Cheese Shark

What is the Difference Between Regular Cheese and Processed Cheese?

After reading this article, you can understand that processed cheese is exactly what the word implies. It is a cheese that has been further processed. Regular cheese, along with water, modified milk ingredients, emulsifiers, stabilizers, colouring, and possible flavourings, are mixed and melted into a mass which then is poured into forms and further cut and packaged. Due to the high heat and some preservatives, some processed cheese doesn’t need to be refrigerated and lasts for many months.

Processed cheese comes in many forms like spreads, spray cans, blocks, and slices. Processed cheese is widely used in the food-service industry, mainly in the use of sandwiches, burgers, nachos, poutine, or other applications that call for melted cheese. Processed cheese plays an important role in today’s food assortment.

If you are not sure if a cheese is regular or processed one, check the ingredients list. Regular cheese does not contain any emulsifiers, like I mentioned above, and processed cheese always has a shiny, plasticity texture.

Is Processed Cheese Good for You?

Processed cheese plays an important role in using cheese that would otherwise go to waste. They are also a dairy product that doesn’t necessarily need refrigeration. The added ingredients might shed some negative light on processed cheese, but with all considered, consumption in moderation won’t pose a health risk. People who need to monitor their sodium intake, as well as people with diabetes, should pay attention to the nutritional value table of processed cheese. When we order a dish in a restaurant that contains melted cheese, there is a good chance it is made with processed cheese unless otherwise stated.

***These are the sources the processed cheese industry gets their cheese from:

  • Bulk cheese: Cheese blocks that are 40 lbs or larger, specifically manufactured for further processing.
  • Trims: Cheese blocks that are cut into exact weight and consumer size pieces always end up with trims that have no desired form or shape.
  • Under or over sized pieces: All consumer cut pieces are weighed to make sure they meet the exact weight indicated on the label. Under or significantly over-sized pieces find their way into processed cheese.
  • Scrap pieces: Cheese wheels that are intended for surface ripening need a perfect form in order to develop a nice rind. Often cheese wheels need to be trimmed to achieve a perfect surface. These scrap pieces end up in processed cheese.
  • Cheese that doesn’t meet the labeling requirements: Cheese batches that had a defect and don’t meet the fat or moisture content according to the labeling always have a home in processed cheese. Processed cheese uses water and fat to adjust the components according to the legal requirements.
  • Overstock: The dairy industry can be tricky sometimes. The produced milk does not always match the demand of the market and farmers can’t stop milking cows as a means of adjustment. Overstocked cheese can always be used for processed cheese.
  • Close to expiry product: When stores have to pull cheese off the shelve that is close to expiry, it can still be used for processed cheese. As long as cheese doesn’t collect mould, it doesn’t expire. It just gets stronger and stronger in taste. This can be corrected in processed cheese by mixing old cheese with very young cheese.

I hope this article sheds some light on the topic of processed cheese. Please let me know what you think. If you have questions please leave them below, I will be sure to answer.

2 thoughts on “What is Processed Cheese?”

  1. Wow, who knew? LOL
    Ok, I knew some of this but not all. And I’m so sad to hear about the high sodium levels.
    I usually choose cheese slices over real cheese quite often because it doesn’t bother me as the real cheese does. I always thought it was the real cheese fat content that bothered me, but I see that the processed cheese has almost as much. Now I’m really confused, haha.
    Thanks so much for this great explanation.
    Suzanne

    1. Thank you Suzanne for your feedback. Yes, good tasting cheese has fat in it, lol. I am happy the explanation has helped. All the best!

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