What Even Is American Cheese?

Hint: It's not actual cheese!

As the saying goes, there’s nothing more American than a slice of apple pie—or a piece of shiny orange cheese. With a flavor that’s simple enough to complement any burger and an unbreakable consistency for stringy cheese pulls from your grilled cheese sandwich, it’s a classic. But everyone can agree that American singles aren’t like cheddar, brie or gouda.

Find out which state (officially) makes the best cheese.

What is American cheese?

Well, as you might have guessed, it’s not actually cheese—at least, not legally. The FDA calls it “pasteurized processed American cheese product.” In order for a food product to be a true “cheese,” it has to be more than half cheese, which is technically pressed curds of milk. Each slice of American contains less than 51% curds, which means it doesn’t meet the FDA’s standard.

However, American cheese is not a total fraud. There is some true cheese in there! That vibrant orange color might clue you into the most common variety, cheddar. Some brands of American cheese also contain Colby, which results in a lighter color. This base cheese is combined with a mixture of whey, milk proteins and emulsifying salts, which makes it different than a traditional cheese. The added ingredients allow a slice to melt without breaking or turning greasy, providing that perfect cheese pull!

Be sure to check out these 10 amazing facts about cheese, too.

Is American cheese good for you?

Even though American cheese is far from pure, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for you. One Kraft single is 60 calories, which isn’t mind-bogglingly high, and the slice has protein and calcium. However, the high amounts of sodium and fat will keep it from landing on a list of healthy foods.

If you’re searching for a lighter alternative to American, skim our list of healthy cheeses to add to your shopping list.

Regardless of its authenticity, this American fridge staple has been popular since its inception. During World War I and II, Kraft was the first brand to sell individually-sliced cheese slices to the American public. By 1930, over 40% of U.S. cheese was from Kraft, and today, the company makes 7.2 billion slices of American cheese per year. That’s as many slices of cheese as there are people on the planet!

See vintage ads for Kraft Dinner and other colorful products.

All-American Recipes to Make with American Cheese
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Emma B. Kumer
Emma Kumer is a marathon-runner, magazine-writer, and graphic design addict. She was a digital editorial intern for Taste of Home Magazine for Summer 2017. She is also a junior in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.