The Fascinating History of American Cheese

Cheese is in burgers, in pastas, and in fried dishes. In fact, it can be found in almost every dish that you can think of even dishes like ice cream and cereal. Cheese is a hugely popular snack and party food and you can often enjoy a delicious cheese platter.  But there is one cheese that is ubiquitous in the American diet and of course that is American Cheese.

American cheese is a form of processed cheese and typically is orange or yellow but also can be white as well (the traditional original color). American cheese melts easily for all kinds of purposes including on a delicious hot dog or hamburger. Its a has a mild flavor and with a hint of salt and sweetness.

Have you ever wondered how American Cheese came to be and why it became so popular? And is it even really cheese? Read on!

american-cheese-1318152In 1851, Cheesemaking in general was transformed by Jesse Williams. Williams is credited with making the first “factory” cheese in New York city. America began to produce so much cheese it was exported to England and known as “American Cheese” but was mostly what we would today classify as Cheddar cheese.

In 1903, James L. Kraft who came from Canada, moved to Chicago with $65. He spent his money buying a horse and wagon, then started wholesaling cheese. Kraft wanted to minimize waste as he noted that cheese would start to spoil quickly in the grocery stores.

Kraft experimented with many ideas including trying to package cheese in jars. He experimented with cheese canning but then tried out something different. Kraft shredded refuse cheddar, re-pasteurized and mixed it with Sodium Phosphate and voila!we now have what we call American Process Cheese. He patented this process 1916 as the first processed cheese.

Parallel to Kraft’s work in Switzerland two gentleman named Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler were also working on similar challenges. They were developing a brand of cheese named Emmental and had figured out that by using sodium citrate on the cheese while it was melting, the cheese would hold together perfectly. Kraft and his brother Norman though were successful in popularizing processed cheese.

American Cheese became popular among soldiers in both World Wars. At first, it was made from a mixture of cheese, namely Colby and Cheddar. By the 1930 nearly 40% of all cheese consumed was processed American Cheese. It wasn’t until 1950 that the familiar cheese slices were developed and packaged.

Owing to the success of this processed cheese, traditional cheese makers pushed the government to clarify Kraft’s product in a way that would separate it from non-processed cheese. The government did establish guidelines for labeling processed cheese products or “pasteurized process” cheese. The law specifically describes these type of cheeses as “a homogeneous plastic mass”.

You may have heard of some items being called “cheese foods” or “cheese products”. These are similar but contain very little “real” or “natural”cheese in them than processed cheese such as American cheeses.

For nearly two centuries cheese production in America has been evolving. What was once made by the local farmer became a mass factory produced product that in some cases contained very little traditional cheese. Hardly a hamburger is sold today with out a slice of American cheese on it.

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