American cheese gets attacked by cheese lovers, sundry nutritionists, food-related websites, and just about anybody who professes a knowledge of food and nutrition. But is American cheese really all that bad for you? Just what is American cheese? What makes it so unhealthy? Should you avoid it? Let’s take a deeper dive into the poster-child for processed food in America, American cheese.
One food writer who has done much to malign American cheese is Michael Pollan. Pollan is the popular author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I’ve met many who believe themselves to be experts in nutrition after reading one of his books. The author once appeared on the Colbert show and singled out American cheese as an example of big evil food. Pollan, strictly speaking, is not a nutritionist and certainly not a dietician. He is a journalist. Many food alarmists have been inspired by him. He is the person who coined, “Don’t eat what you can’t pronounce.”
Pollan and others blame processed food and, by extension, so-called “unnatural foods” for the obesity epidemic, a rise in heart disease, and pretty much every other health problem known to man. In a general sense, it’s a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. You can certainly blame the processed food industry (in all its definitions) for a lot of things and make arguments about its impact on the environment, etc. But to blame it for all ill health is simply unfounded. We cannot even claim, as often is, that all disease is caused by the food we eat, let alone processed food.
I find Pollan’s books a bit sensationalistic for my taste and his pretense to “science” is particularly annoying to me. Attacking science while trying to sound scientific is just plain silly.
His attacks on American cheese is an example of a not-so-valid assumption about processed foods. Not all American cheese products are the same but let’s assume I’m talking about Kraft American cheese…the original. The automatic assumption is that American cheese is “bad” just because it is processed. But from a purely nutritional standpoint, and if you know how it is made, it can be considered fairly nutritionally sound. For example, American cheese has a better protein to fat ratio than regular cheese.
Cheddar Cheese and American Cheese Nutrition
Most online articles about the dangers of American cheese are sensationalized click-bait filled with false-facts like American cheese is high fat (it contains less fat than many regular cheeses). It mostly does not contain real cheese (the primary ingredient is cheddar cheese) and it’s high sodium and sodium is killing us (it’s not).
Here is a typical nutrition profile of cheddar cheese, using a 100-gram reference (a serving is around 28 grams):
- Calories: 409
- Total Fat: 34 g
- Sat. Fat: 19.2 g
- Protein: 23.3
- Carbohydrate: 2.44 g
- Sugars: 0.33 g
Here is a nutrition profile of American (pasteurized process) Cheese, 100-gram reference:
- Calories: 358
- Total Fat: 30.6 g
- Sat Fat: 18.1 g
- Protein: 18 g
- Carbohydrates: 5.27
- Sugars: 2.63
As you can see, American cheese does contain less protein and more carbohydrates than regular cheddar cheese. However, the ratio of protein to fat is better. American cheese contains less fat and there are more grams of protein for every gram of fat. The difference is slight, but it’s there. American cheese also contains fewer calories and less saturated fat. In simple terms, it all evens out in the wash. There isn’t enough difference to recommend one over the other, nutritionally, but what American cheese adds in some ways, it makes up for in others. In terms of nutrition, unless you eat huge amounts of either, one is just as good a choice as the other.
Contrary to popular belief, American cheese starts with cheddar cheese to which whey and such is added. There are some additional preservatives that many foodies would scream about but they haven’t been linked to any health effects. “Real” cheese, by the way, often has mold inhibitors added.
Sodium in American Cheese
Is American cheese high in sodium? Yes, it contains more sodium than regular cheddar cheese. Again, looking at 100 gram amounts:
- American cheese: 1660 mg
- Cheddar cheese: 664 mg
Is this sodium amount of special concern to those who are not on a sodium-restricted diet because of their high blood pressure and salt sensitivity? No.
But here is the biggest fallacy. CHEESE is as PROCESSED as you can GET! The whole reason cheese was invented was to PRESERVE milk. That is, it is a way of processing milk in order to preserve it.
Yet, Michael Pollan, on Colbert, mentioned American cheese and how terrible it is while claiming that he supported regular “natural” cheese. As is typical he made a statement that he obviously hadn’t researched much. Offhandedly, he mentioned that American cheese has in the neighborhood of 40 ingredients! I would have advised him to check a label before making such a statement on national television. It depends, of course, on what particular product we’re talking about but in truth, it has about a quarter that many ingredients.
Legal Definitions of American Cheese and Other Processed Cheese
There may be some “processed cheese foods” out there that have that many ingredients but these are not American cheese. You see, there are actual legal definitions as to what can be named American cheese, etc.:
- Pasteurized process cheese (100% cheese which includes “American Cheese” and “Pasteurized process American cheese”), (e.g., “Kraft Deli Deluxe American Cheese”, “Land o Lakes American Cheese”, “Laughing Cow”).
- Pasteurized process cheese food, which contains at least 51% cheese.
- Pasteurized process cheese product which contain less than 51% cheese and cannot be advertised as cheese under FDA regulations (e.g. “Velveeta, “Kraft Singles”)
- Pasteurized process cheese spread
American Cheese and Cheddar Cheese Ingredients
Here are the ingredients for Kraft Singles (aka Kraft American Cheese)
Milk, whey, milk protein concentrate, milkfat, sodium citrate, contains less than 2% of calcium phosphate, whey protein concentrate, salt, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, cheese culture, annatto and paprika extract (color), enzymes, vitamin d3.
Here are the ingredients for Kraft Shart Cheddar Cheese block:
Pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, annatto (color), natamycin (a natural mold inhibitor).
Sodium citrate is a pH adjuster. It helps control acidity. They also use it in stored blood to keep it from clotting. Calcium phosphate is a stabilizer. It’s also the form of calcium you are likely to get if you take a calcium supplement. Lactic acid helps to preserve foods but also helps prevent discoloration. It is a product of fermentation, found in such produces as yogurt. Your muscles produce it as your exercise. It is considered healthy to ingest and may even boost your immune system. Sorbic acid is an extremely popular food additive used as a preservative.
American Cheese Helps Control Waste from the Cheese Industry
Regular cheese-making produces a lot of scraps and leftovers that would be wasted unless they were used in making the processed cheese. And consider whey, which is added to American cheese. That is a byproduct of the cheese industry.
Cheese is simply a processed food and American cheese is further processed cheese to give it certain advantages. None of which should be automatically assumed to be unhealthy as compared to regular cheese. But ‘regular’ cheese is “natural”. No, cheese is a processed food, one invented by humans.
In truth, American cheese is as nutritionally sound as regular cheese. If you do not think regular cheese is healthy then you certainly would not consider American cheese healthy. But if you believe regular cheese to be healthy and American cheese to be unhealthy simply by virtue of being more processed, then you are simply misinformed. American cheese, again, is nutritionally more sound than regular cheese by virtue of having a higher protein to fat ratio.
Nutrition aside, it melts better and can even add more smoothness and creaminess to a cheese sauce made with regular cheese. American cheese is not bad for you, in moderation anymore than any other cheese is bad for you in moderation.