Processed vs. Natural Cheese, a Tasting

by Kelly on November 21, 2011

Blogging is full of so many I never thought I’d do _________ moments. It’s one of the things I love about it. It’s introduced me to new recipes, experiences and people that I’ve never had the opportunity to come across otherwise.  As I mentioned last week, it’s easy to get distracted and forget about why you started blogging in the first place so whenever I’m feeling a bit uninspired about blogging or being particularly hard on myself for things I think I could do better, I remind myself of all these new experiences.

Now I have a new one to add to the list.  Recently I did a tasting of processed and natural cheese for the blog as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program.  I received a $25 gift card from Sargento Cheese to buy one of their natural cheeses, a processed cheese, and accompaniments for tasting.

I love doing cheese tastings all the time, either ones I’ve organized myself or those offered by a restaurant.  They are a great way to compare different flavor profiles of cheeses, look for similarities and differences, and to determine what you like.  But this was a first for me.  Usually most of my tastings are organized around artisan cheeses, the kinds that are inherently “gourmet” in nature.  (Sorry, I know my not-so-well hidden cheese snob is showing.)  But plain ol’ grocery store processed American Cheese, I’d pretty much overlooked it. Sure I’ll eat it sometimes, generally at a restaurant, on a hamburger or a sandwich. But plain, not so much. It made me realize I didn’t really have any idea what it tasted like on its own nor had I really stopped to dissect the flavor, so I was curious to experiment.

But before I get to the tasting, I had to answer the question for myself.  What is processed cheese?  I’ll admit that I think I know a fair amount when it comes to cheese, but even I didn’t have the answer to this one.  Maybe I’m the only one that wonders this, but processed seems like a pretty nebulous word these days.  I know people that will refer to any kind of packaged food as processed and others for whom it means a food with unpronounceable ingredients.  Turns out when it comes to cheese, there is actually some regulation involved because it is a commodity food.  But basically, according the to the Michigan Dairy Review, processed cheese is made by shredding natural cheeses and heating them into a molten mass.  During heating, the whole mixture is emulsified using emulsifying salts so that it becomes stable.  (Additional ingredients like preservatives may also be added.)  The result is a cheese that tends to have a longer shelf life than natural and that melts more evenly.  It’s also a way of using up what might other be cheese waste as manufacturers can combine scraps from cheese cut for grocery stores together and heat to transform it into processed cheese.

So how did it taste?

Processed American CheeseBefore I could even get to the flavor I was a little bit distracted by the texture.  As you may be able to tell from the picture it was a bit soft, wiggly (Sorry, had to resort to the vocabulary of an elementary schooler.),  almost gelatinous in texture.  It wasn’t all together unpleasant, but definitely lacked the firmer texture I have come to expect from sliced cheese.  The flavor to me was in line with what I would expect from a mild nacho cheese sauce or canned cheese.  It was cheese-like, but lacked the nuance and sharpness I typically enjoy.  In essence, it’s very mild and non-offensive, but it doesn’t have a ton of character either.  The one advantage of this cheese, which I knew, was in the melting.  It melts easily and won’t separate once heated, hence why you see it called for in easy queso dips and a lot of casseroles.  I used it to make a grilled cheese and true to its purpose, it turned molten and gooey with little heat and coaxing.  This is, admittedly, where it shines because it truly tastes like the grilled cheeses I remembered of my childhood and if you’re looking for the classic, white bread and American cheese is it.  However, cold, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Natural CheeseAs a point of comparison, I sampled some sliced Sargento Cheese.  I’ve bought their shredded cheese blends before when I don’t feel like grating my own, but this was my first time trying their sliced cheese.  It’s tricky to find a perfect comparison because the processed American cheese I bought, to me, is a taste in and of itself and not really equivalent to cheddar or monterey jack.  I opted for the Aged Swiss because it’s one of my favorites when it comes to pre-sliced and deli cheese.  It had a much sharper flavor to it than the processed cheese by far, with a light, almost sourness that I enjoy from Swiss cheese.  It also had a firmer texture, which I appreciated.  In my grilled cheese, it required a bit more coaxing to melt, but covering the pan after I flipped it to its second time resulted in the perfect marriage of melt and flavor.

Overall, while much more random than my typical cheese tasting, I had a lot of fun.  I may buy processed American Cheese every once and awhile when I am craving the classic grilled cheese of my childhood, but in general, I much prefer the stronger flavors of a natural cheese.  (Not to mention the fact that some processed cheese products have less than 50% cheese kind of freaks me out.)  However, as with anything, I suggest you let your own taste buds guide you.

Not sure what you’re eating?  Words like pasteurized process cheese, pasteurized process cheese food, or pasteurized process cheese product on the label are a dead giveaway that the cheese is processed as is a long ingredient list.  Natural cheeses will have a short ingredient list (if it is listed).

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

shannon November 21, 2011 at 4:04 pm

it’s funny, i need LOL american for grilled cheese, and it’s purely b/c of memories at this point!


Kelly November 21, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Shannon – You don’t have to explain. I completely understand the tug of memories, especially when it comes to food. I can definitely go for a more gourmet grilled cheese, but sometimes plain ol’ American and white bread that’s been thoroughly buttered has an unexplainable appeal.


Wendy (The Local Cook) November 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Next you need to try some raw milk artisan cheese. It’s awesome!


Kelly November 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Wendy – Thanks for the comment. Artisan cheeses are definitely what are more often featured on my blog. There are a lot of great raw milk cheeses available, though there are also quite a few made from pasteurized milk I really enjoy. What is your favorite?


kimberlee November 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Have you ever tried Sargento’s White Cheddar slices? My favorite! But I can no longer find it in my local stores.


Kelly November 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Kimberlee – I haven’t tried it. This was actually my first time trying the slices (though I have used the shredded cheese before). Though I KNOW how frustrating it can be when you find something you really like and it disappears (I know I’m going through that right now with the Cherry Cordial M&M’s.) so I hope you find it soon. There is nothing worse than going from store to store in search of something and coming up empty handed!


Jason Phelps December 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Great way to get into the story. I’m a natural cheese guy, but that is a texture thing. I’m sure I eat more processed cheese than I think I am, but I surely don’t notice!

I don’t think I’ve ever had Sargento’s natural cheeses. Something to look for.



Kelly December 1, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Thanks! I did really researching it. When the e-mail first came out I thought I’d pass because I don’t consciously eat a lot of processed cheese, but then I realized it was an interesting opportunity to delve into something I knew nothing about. However it has started a new weird habit where when I see cheeses I like to guess about whether they are processed or not. Yep. I’m a weirdo.


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