The anatomy of processed cheese

I confess! If you stuck your head in my fridge, you would find a jar of orange cheese spread. It’s not for me, but for my kids! They like to put it on celery or on their breakfast toast. There’s also orange cheese slices. Ok… that’s mine. What can I say? I love grilled cheese sandwiches!

While it will forever be gourmet's poor cousin, processed cheese spread has carved out an important place in our culinary heritage. In cooking, we appreciate its ability to melt easily in mac and cheese, on grilled cheese and cheeseburgers. But what's in it and how is it made?

You might think processed cheese spread is relatively new. Not at all! Its invention dates back to the end of the 19th century, when people wanted to find a way to store cheese longer.

The first attempts took place in Germany in 1890 with camembert cheese. However, Gerber undertook the first industrial manufacture of real processed cheese, Emmental-based, in Switzerland in 1911.

No doubt all the observations and understanding of how things work gained during the development of famous Swiss cheese fondues enabled the processed cheese formula to be perfected. The famous processed cheese triangle, individually wrapped in foil packaging, called La vache qui rit or The Laughing Cow, was born in 1921. Years later, in 1928, the American company Kraft introduced Velveeta, its first processed cheese product, on the American and Canadian markets. From there, it was a short leap to developing individually wrapped processed cheese slices. Today, despite the fact that the sale of processed cheese products is on the decline in Canada, we still manage to consume a whopping 5.5 lbs. of the stuff per person each year. Fortunately, we now have a wider, more refined selection. You can find processed cheese spreads made from cheeses such as Oka, Brie or Champfleury!

Manufacturing process

Processed cheese products allow the cheese industry to rework cheese and present it in a different way. These products are made from cheese scraps, cheese with defects in its fat or moisture content, or even from surplus stock.

The manufacturing process is quite simple: cheese is shredded and mixed with other ingredients in a heated mixer to obtain a consistent, smooth paste. The melted paste is then poured or injected into a plastic tube (for products such as Velveeta cheese), into preformed aluminum foils (in triangular portions such as Swiss Knight or The Laughing Cow) or in a bottle (for spreadable products such as Cheez Whiz).

To make individually wrapped slices, hot paste is injected into a strip of plastic wrap, which is then pressed flat and cooled in an ice water bath. The strip is then divided to create individual cheese slices.

This is a costly process. Processed cheese products are not a deal. In fact, their price per pound is often the same as the cheese from which they are made, if not higher.

Controlled designation of origin!

Did you know that standards of identity and composition exist for many foods sold in Canada? These federal regulations dictate what a food must and can contain. In the case of processed cheese, there are three legal definitions for the terms "processed cheese," "processed cheese food," and "processed cheese spread." A product can only be called one of these terms if it complies with the regulations. However, it is not often that a product adheres exactly to the applicable requirements. This is why most types of processed cheese are called "processed cheese product" or "spreadable processed cheese product." This subtle difference allows manufacturers to work around the requirements, without compromising the quality of the final product. For example, this has enabled light processed cheese products to be introduced on the market.

But are they nutritious?

Processed cheese food is a source of calcium and protein. However, its nutritional value is diluted due to the fact that it contains more water than actual cheese. A 30 g serving of processed cheese food fulfills about 15% of our calcium needs, which is nothing to sneeze at! The downside: its sodium content. The added salt means that processed cheese food contains two to three times more sodium than regular cheese. One 30 g serving is equal to 20% of your daily maximum intake. Check the Nutrition Table: some products contain a lot less salt than others.

Anatomy of processed cheese products

  1. Cheese (55%): yes, there is real cheese in processed cheese! There is one or more kinds (cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, etc.), depending on the product's specific features. Cheese must count for at least 51% of the weight of processed cheese food and processed cheese spread, but most do contain more. For example, a spreadable processed cheese product called Le p'tit crémeux made by Fromagerie Boivin in Quebec contains about 60% real cheese.
  2. Modified milk ingredients (7%): these ingredients resemble powdered milk and are made from milk, cream, butter or whey (a by-product of the manufacture of cheese). Less expensive than real cheese, modified milk ingredients are not less natural. They are added to standardize the fat and protein content in processed cheese to ensure that the products are identical from one batch to the next.
  3. Water (30%): the second or third ingredient in order of importance, water is added to give the desired consistency to the finished product. For example, processed cheese triangles contain a bit of water. On the other hand, it is needed more in spreadable products.
  4. Stabilizing agent (2%): ingredients such as maltodextrin (a kind of starch), alginates or carrageenan (comes from seaweed) are added to emulsify, stabilize or thicken processed cheese.
  5. Citrate or sodium phosphate (1.5%): these additives are the key ingredient in processed cheese. It would be impossible to mix cheese with water and obtain the desired smooth and consistent texture without them. Also known as emulsifying salts, they allow cheese proteins to separate from one another and form an emulsion with the product's water and fat.
  6. Salt (1%): it's mostly added for taste. Warning: processed cheese is really salty! Aside from a few exceptions, it contains two to three times more sodium than regular cheese, which already contains quite a bit.
  7. Ground mustard seeds (0.5%): this spice and many others are added to unify the taste from one batch to the next, as processed cheese sometimes contains mild cheese, other times sharper cheese.
  8. Acids and preservatives (0.5%): lactic acid and citric acid are added to reduce pH levels, while sorbic acid acts as a preservative to prevent mould growth.
  9. Colourant: without colourant, processed cheese wouldn't be orange and its colour would vary from one batch to the next. Colourant is needed to standardize colour as the type and the relative proportion of cheeses used (white or orange) varies. Manufacturers can use spices to add an orange colour, such as curcuma and paprika, or even vitamins, such as riboflavin or beta-carotene.

For a homemade recipe, click here.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.