Processed Cheese

We learned about the hot dog recall and the nacho cheese botulism outbreak. James L. Kraft got the first patent for processed cheese in 1916; the cheese was sliced, whisked, pasteurized, and emulsified, making it more resistant to spoiling, and thanks to the emulsifiers, it didn’t congeal then separate when it melted. It was a good time to crack the cheese code, since the US was about to enter the war, and the company made a mint supplying the Army. Kraft, predicting the future of globalization, wrote to his employees: “After we are gone there will be Kraft salesmen trekking the veldt of Africa, braving the snows of Siberia and battling the superstitions of Mongolia—all earnestly striving to increase sales, which by that time will be far in excess of a hundred million.” Natural cheese manufacturers, who got the short end of the economic stick, lobbied the government to force Kraft to label the product as “embalmed cheese” (no joke). That didn’t take, but they were forced to call it processed cheese.

Kraft Singles date to 1949. In 1992 the FTC forced the company to halt its ad campaign focusing on the amount of milk in each slice, which was deemed misleading. Cheez Whiz dates to 1952. Sometime around 2001, the formula was changed to reduce the amount of cheese in it. One of the original developers said that the original version  “went well at night with crackers and a little martini. It went down very, very nicely, if you wanted to be civilized.” The new version, he said, tasted like “axle grease.” Nothing is sacred.

Easy Cheese—a soft processed cheese mucilage extruded through a flexible nozzle—dates to 1965. Originally called Snack Mate and sold with the slogan “instant cheese for instant parties,” the name was changed in 1984. Besides being the apex of making convenience foods as far removed as possible from the foods they’re convenience-ing, thus forcing the consumer to confront and even participate in this disconnect, paying a crushing, alienating psychic cost for any savings in time and money, Easy Cheese relies on some pretty fun physics.

The cheese food product is essentially an oil-water emulsion that exhibits “pseudoplastic” behaviors while being extruded, as governed by the Herschel-Bulkley model. As a non-Newtonian fluid, Easy Cheese acts as a liquid when shear forces are applied to it—that is, while being extruded—and as a solid when the forces are removed. It returns quickly to a high viscosity state, and holds its shape after being expelled, thanks to “weak transient networks formed by the conglomerate cheese mass” and the “protein concentration within the cheese matrix.”


appeared in: processed trivia roundup