American cheese is usually thought as the worst possible variety of anything resembling
cheese. Enjoyed all over America as a snack or in grilled cheese sandwiches, American
cheese is not usually considered "cheese," except by the sketchiest of legal definitions.
British colonists made cheddar as soon as they arrived in America. By 1790, American
cheddars were being exported back to England and 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. Today, the total
export of American cheese at 355 million pounds per year, with an expected growth to
1,420 million pounds in the near future.
American cheese in its most common form is a blend of milk, milk fats and solids, with
other fats and something called whey protein concentrates. All the ingredients must meet
the legal definition of cheese, even if the final result is more cheese-like. This is why many
American cheese products bear the title "cheese product" or "cheese food" on the
American cheese used to be a blend of Colby and cheddar cheeses. These varieties were
most popular in America, and it was invented in America, hence the name. American
cheese then was sold in blocks in delis and supermarkets. It was preferred because of its
milder flavor than cheddar.
With the surge in popularity of convenience foods in the 1950s, it is not surprising that
processed cheese slices were first commercially available in 1950. This processed
cheese soon took the name "American" and American cheese as we know it was born.
American cheese was first popular because it melted smoothly and didn't separate when
heated, as cheddar tends to do. It was great on grilled cheese sandwiches, on
cheeseburgers and for use in dips and spreads. Kept warm in a slow cooker,
American cheese has its critics, for its fat and sodium content, colorings and other
additives. It is, after all, made from the remnants of "real" cheese-making. However, it is
high in calcium and protein, and is still a good way for parents to make sure their picky
eaters get some kind of variety in their diets.
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 and fewer additives to their American Cheese
varieties. In other cases, the ingredients for white and orange colors are the same, except
for the coloring. However, this does not necessarily mean that even these white and
orange cheeses have exactly the same flavor and texture because the spice Annatto,
which has a subtle but noticeable taste, is often used for coloring American Cheese.
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. The individually wrapped cheese slices are typically the
least like unprocessed cheese. Small blocks of pre-sliced, but not individually-wrapped,
American Cheese are also marketed, often with the branding “deluxe” or “old fashioned.”
This variety of American Cheese is similar in ingredients and texture to that of modern
block American Cheese. Before the advent of the individually wrapped variety, this was
the typical variety that Americans purchased. Hence, some people refer to this as
“traditional”, “old fashioned”, or “classic” American Cheese. American Cheese in block
form sold at deli counters is typically a less processed cheese than its individually
wrapped cousin. Nonetheless, most block American Cheese is still a processed cheese.