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What Is American Cheese Really Made Of?


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Channel: BrainStuff - HowStuffWorks
Categories: Cooking   |   Fine Arts   |   Chemistry   |   Science  
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Processed American cheese is super cheap, consistent, shelf-stable, and orange. Jonathan explains how this science cheese is made.

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Let’s say you want to make nacho dip. Everyone wants to make
nacho dip. But when you heat regular cheese, the fats can melt
away from the rest of the cheese solids, leaving you with a pool
of oil and a lumpy, stringy mess.

Enter processed cheese, of which American cheese is a particular type. This stuff is consistent by design, has a longer shelf-life, is usually cheaper than natural cheese, and melts like a dream.

But… how? What arcane science imbued natural cheese with such
unnatural properties?

Here in the U.S., the FDA has crafted an exhaustively specific legal definition of processed cheese. The short version is that it’s a type of food made by pulverizing, heating, and mixing actual cheese of one or more types with an emulsifier into a homogeneous plastic mass.

That’s “plastic” as in the physical definition, i.e. “a substance easily shaped or molded”. Processed cheese isn’t made of actual plastic.

But it can contain water, salt, artificial color, flavorings, and this

Emulsifying agents: monosodium phosphate,disodium phosphate, dipotassium phosphate, trisodium phosphate, sodium metaphosphate (sodium hexametaphosphate), sodium acid pyrophosphate, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium citrate, potassium citrate, calcium citrate, sodium tartrate, and sodium potassium tartrate;

Additional fat: cream, anhydrous milkfat, and dehydrated cream;

Acidifying agents: vinegar, lactic acid, citric acid, acetic acid, and phosphoric acid;

Mold inhibitors: sorbic acid, potassium sorbate, sodium sorbate, sodium propionate, and calcium propionate;

Anti-sticking agent: lecithin.

The key to processed cheese’s smoothness is the emulsifying agents. An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that don’t usually mix. Like oil and water. No matter how hard you stir or shake them together, they’ll separate back out. But emulsifiers make the two play nice, chemically speaking.

That’s because they interact with both liquids, grabbing globules of one and suspending them evenly throughout the other. Cheese (and milk, for that matter) is made up of fats and oil-soluble substances plus a solution of water-soluble proteins and minerals. The added emulsifiers keep them blended together, even when they’re heated.

The other optional ingredients are texture and flavor enhancers, preservatives, and cheesemaking shortcuts designed to speed the manufacturing process along. But as long as the finished cheese has moisture, fat, and pH levels that closely resemble those of its actual cheese ingredients, the stuff can legally be called “pasteurized process cheese.”

And if it’s made from cheddar, washed curd, Colby, or granular cheese, it can be called “American cheese.”

But you may have noticed some extra words creeping in on labels, dubbing the stuff pasteurized process cheese food or spread or product.

Those designations indicate that other ingredients have been put in that reduce the amount of actual cheese in the finished food. All of these creations are required to consist of at least 51% cheese.


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