American Cheese

american cheese by Esteban Pulido

American cheese is a processed cheese, mild in flavor, with a medium-firm consistency, which melts easily. It was originally only white in color, but is usually now darkened to yellow or orange, typically with annatto, a natural food coloring.

At one time it was made from a blend of cheeses, most often Colby and Cheddar, but today’s American cheese is typically manufactured from raw ingredients, such as milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, and salt. In many jurisdictions, it does not meet the legal definition of cheese and must be labeled as ‘cheese analogue,’ ‘cheese product,’ ‘processed cheese,’ or similar and is commonly referred to as ‘plastic cheese’ or ‘burger cheese’ in the UK.

The marketing label ‘American Cheese’ for ‘processed cheese’ combined with the prevalence of processed cheese in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world has led to the term American cheese being used in the U.S. synonymously in place of processed cheese. American cheese is sometimes used in American cuisine, for example on cheeseburgers, in grilled cheese sandwiches, and in macaroni and cheese.

British colonists made cheddar as soon as they arrived in America. By 1790, American cheddars were being exported back to England. The British referred to American cheddar as ‘American cheese,’ or ‘Yankee cheese,’ and post-Revolution Americans promoted this usage to distinguish their product from European cheese. Originally, the English considered American cheese inferior in quality; still, it was cheap, so it sold. This connotation of the term American cheese became entrenched in Europe even after the Americans began producing quality cheese.

‘American Cheese’ continued to refer to American cheddar until the advent of processed cheese. Americans referred to their cheddar as ‘yellow cheese’ or ‘store cheese,’ because of its popularity and availability. By the 1890s, once cheese factories had sprung up across the nation, American cheddar was also referred to as ‘factory cheese.’ And in the 1920s another slang term arose for the still popular cheese: ‘rattrap cheese.’

During the summer months of 1942, U.S. officials imposed severe restrictions on cheese consumption as a wartime conservation measure. These restrictions disallowed the sale or consumption of all types of cheese other than American Cheese. This was due to a combination of factors: paucity of availability of cheese from continental Europe, abundance of the American variety, and a perceived need to encourage wartime patriotism among citizens. The public response to the ban was immediate and noticeable. Importers of British cheese claimed that it damaged morale in both countries, and represented a lack of solidarity in the war effort on the part of the USA. For these reasons and others, the ban was rescinded without opposition that same summer.

The taste and texture of different varieties of American Cheese vary considerably, and mostly depend on the percentage of cheese versus additives used during emulsification. Varieties with lower percentages of additives tend to taste more like unprocessed cheese. Depending on the food manufacturer, the color of the cheese (orange, yellow, or white) may indicate different ingredients or processes. Some manufacturers reserve the white and yellow colors for their less processed (i.e. fewer additives) American Cheese varieties.

The processed variety of American Cheese is sold in three basic packaging varieties: individually wrapped cheese slices, small pre-sliced blocks of 8 to 36 slices, and large blocks meant for deli counters, which is typically a less processed cheese than its individually wrapped cousin. Nonetheless, most block American Cheese is still a processed cheese.

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