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Processed cheese (a.k.a., process cheese; cheese slice; prepared cheese; cheese product; cheese singles; or, cheese food) is a food product made from a normal cheese (and sometimes other, unfermented, dairy by-product ingredients); plus emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, extra salt, food colorings, and/or whey or sugar. As a result, many flavors, colors, and textures of processed cheese exist.
In the United States, the most recognizable variety of processed cheese is sold under the name American cheese, although this name also has other meanings. American cheese is pre-processed at mechanized factories and usually bought pre-sliced and pre-packaged at a supermarket (or some other type of retail store). The name American cheese also has a legal definition as a specific type of pasteurized, processed cheese, under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.
Although the invention of processed cheese is credited to Walter Gerber of Thun, Switzerland in 1911, it was James L. Kraft who first applied for a U.S. patent for his method of making processed cheese, in 1916. Kraft Foods developed the first commercially-available, shelf-stable, sliced, processed cheese; it was introduced in 1950. This form of sliced cheese (and its derivatives) have become ubiquitous in U.S. households ever since, most notably used for cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches (due to its ability to cook evenly, distribute/stretch smoothly, and resist congealing — unlike natural, cheddar cheeses). The Laughing Cow is one brand of European processed cheese.
Processed cheese has several technical advantages over natural cheese, including: far longer shelf-life; resistance to separating when cooked; and, a uniform look and physical behavior. Its mass-produced nature provides arguably its greatest advantage over natural cheese: a dramatically lower cost -- to producers and consumers, alike -- than conventional cheesemaking. This is often due to ingredients that are more widely-varied and of simpler quality. This, in turn, enables industrial-scale production volumes, lower distribution costs, a steadier supply, and much faster production time (compared to natural cheeses).
The use of emulsifiers in processed cheese results in a product that melts smoothly (i.e., without separating) when cooked; with prolonged heating, some natural cheeses (especially the extremely-popular-in-the-U.S., cheddar and mozzarella) will separate into a lumpy, molten protein gel & liquid fat combination. The emulsifiers (typically sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, tartrate, or citrate) reduce the tendency for tiny fat globules in the cheese, to coalesce and pool on the surface of the molten cheese.
Because processed cheese does not separate when melted, it is used as an ingredient in a variety of dishes. Unlike some unprocessed cheeses, heating does not alter its taste and/or texture.
Processed cheese is often sold in blocks, pressurized cans, and (especially in the U.S.A.,) packs of in individual slices -- often separated by wax paper, or with each slice individually-wrapped by machine. The first commercially-available, individually-wrapped, cheese slices were introduced in the U.S.A. by Clearfield Cheese Co. in 1956. US Pat. 2759308 by Arnold Nawrocki was assigned to Clearfield Cheese Co. in 1956.
Due to its highly mechanized (e.g., assembly line) methods of production, and additive ingredients (e.g., oils, salts, colors), some softer varieties of processed cheese cannot legally be labeled as actual "cheese" in many countries -- even those in which slightly harder varieties can be. Such products tend to be classified "cheese food", "cheese spread", or "cheese product" (depending primarily on the amount of cheese, moisture, and milkfat present in the final product).
In the United States, processed cheese is defined, categorized, and regulated by the Food & Drug Administration under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (Food and Drugs), Section 133 (Cheeses and Cheese Related Products). Pasteurized process cheese can be made from a single cheese (solid, or powdered), or a blend of several cheeses. Cream, milkfat, water, salt, artificial color, oils (for consistency and texture), and spices may also be added. The mixture is heated with an emulsifier, poured into a mold, and allowed to cool. The definitions include:
The US Food & Drug Administration does not maintain a standard of identity for "'Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product'", a designation which particularly appears on many popular Kraft products (as well as some others). Neither does the FDA maintain a standard of identity for "'Pasteurized Process Cheese Product'" (emphasis on the trailing "Product"), a designation which appears particularly on many American store- and generic-branded singles. Products labeled as such may use milk protein concentrate (MPC) in the formulation, an ingredient which does not appear in the above FDA definitions. The desire to use inexpensive imported milk protein concentrate is noted as motivation for the introduction of these and similar terms, and for the relabeling of some products. After an FDA Warning Letter protesting Kraft's use of MPC in late 2002, some varieties of Kraft Singles formerly labeled "Pasteurized Process Cheese Food" became "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product", Velveeta was relabeled from "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread" to "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product", and Easy Cheese from "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread" to "Pasteurized Cheese Snack".
The best known processed cheese in the United States is marketed as American cheese by Kraft Foods, Borden, and other companies. It is orange, yellow, or off-white; and mild, with a medium consistency, and melts easily. It is typically made from a blend of cheeses, most often Colby and Cheddar.
Another type of processed cheese created in the United States is Provel pasteurized processed pizza cheese, which uses Cheddar, Swiss, and provolone cheeses as flavorants. Provel cheese is commonly used in St. Louis-style pizza. Another variety of processed pizza cheeses are Mozzarella-like imitation processed cheeses, which are sometimes used in frozen pizzas.