What is the Difference between Processed Cheese and Real Cheese and How is Artificial Cheese Made?

In addition to the hundreds of classic cheeses developed over more than a thousand years in various parts of the world, we are blessed today with many options for adding cheese flavor, be it natural or artificial, to our snacks and dishes.

Dozens of cheesy (often in more ways than one) factory-produced concoctions beckon to us from the market’s refrigerated cases. Almost all of them contain “real” cheese, but their ties to reality can be rather thin.

The primary virtue of these so-called “process” (not “processed”) cheeses is that unlike many classic cheeses they are easily meltable and blendable. That’s because they often contain emulsifying agents and/or have been beaten into smooth submission long before they reach your kitchen.

Classifying them, as you can imagine, can be quite a chore, but the FDA is up to it. Here are the FDA-defined categories in order of diminishing faithfulness to the historic and revered concept of cheese.

• Pasteurized process cheese: A mixture of two or more cheese varieties that have been heated and blended together with an emulsifier and optional ingredients such as water, salt, or coloring, into what the FDA appetizingly calls “a homogeneous plastic mass” with a minimum of 47 percent milk fat. These cheese products may contain added cream or fat, making them more easily meltable, but they must be at least 51 percent actual cheese. Example: Most American cheeses.

• Pasteurized process cheese food (note: not a “cheese” but a “food”): A pasteurized process cheese containing enough added ingredients such as cream, milk, skim milk, buttermilk, or whey to reduce the percentage of actual cheese in the product to below 51. May contain emulsifiers such as phosphates, citrates, or tartrates, but must contain at least 23 percent milk fat. Example: Land O’Lakes American Singles.

• Pasteurized process cheese spread: A pasteurized process cheese food that may contain a sweetener plus stabilizing and thickening gums such as xanthin or carrageenan. Must contain at least 20 percent milk fat. Example: Kraft Olive and Pimento Spread.

• Pasteurized process cheese product: Any process cheese product that contains less than 20 percent milk fat. Examples: Kraft Singles, Velveeta.

• Imitation cheese: Made from vegetable oil. Minimum milk fat: zero percent. In a glass by itself is Cheez Whiz Cheese Dip or Cheese Sauce. After whey, its most abundant ingredient is canola oil. Milk fat? Less than two percent.

• Orange glop: Not an official FDA classification, but the name I give to the stuff they pour over nachos, French fries, and hot dogs in places I wouldn’t eat in.

And consumers are supposed to think they’re all simply “cheese”?