Fake Cheese

I remember pressing my hands and nose against the cold glass of the deli counter and tracing shapes in the breathy fog. Gazing in at the wheels and blocks of cheese and hunks of ham, turkey, and salami. Staring at the contents of the case broke the boredom of grocery shopping as a child, waiting in line with number in hand. The pinnacle of the trip was always arriving to the front of the line and being offered a slice of Land ‘o’ Lakes American cheese.

While these days I lean more towards the ‘fancier’ varieties of cheese I talk about on this blog, but when I get my hands on it it’s a delight. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a classic ham and cheese with mayonnaise and mustard on white bread. It brings back memories of the deli counter, packing sandwiches for the beach or picnics, or sitting at the lunch table at school.

Though delicious, classic American cheese and products such as Kraft and Velveeta cannot be sold or marketed as being actual cheese. According to US FDA regulations and standards processed cheeses must be called ‘cheese products’. That’s why Kraft singles are called singles, there’s no declaration that the product is cheese.

Processed cheese is cheese made from an amalgam of different cheeses. For example, Kraft is a combination of different cheddars, dyes, and preservatives. The same goes for Velveeta, Cheez-Whiz, and similar products. It doesn’t mean that the cheese is artificial, but it isn’t the purest cheese available.

It may seem strange, but string cheese sticks, the kind you loved to peel apart as a kid, are genuine cheese products. Most cheese sticks are made from mozzarella. The same mozzarella I talked about in a previous post. Instead of being wrapped in loose balls, the mozzarella is condensed so its denser and then repeatedly stretched by machines until the cheese is stringy.

This information makes little difference to those who are aware of that certain cheese products are ‘the real deal’ (sometimes the giveaway is just their fluorescent orange color), but it opens another door to understanding the complexities of the cheese industry.

Certification and authentication are very important aspects of the industry. Aside from just being able to label products as a genuine cheese or a cheese product there are strict rules for what to call certain types of cheese.

Parmesan is a wonderful example of this. Parmesan is the word most would use to talk about this type of cheese whether it’s sliced, shredded, or grated, but the proper name is Parmigiano Reggiano. In the EU cheeses labelled Parmigiano Reggiano must have been crafted in the Parma region of Italy using only three ingredients: milk, salt, and rennet. In the US the regulations aren’t nearly as strict, so anything can be called parmesan. True Parmigiano Reggiano can be identified by its thick, stamped, rind.

What I’ve been learning through researching and writing this blog is that the fine print on cheese is very important. Take note about whether cheese is marketed as a cheese product or not, what kind of rennet is used (vegetarian or animal), and where your cheese was made. The more you know!



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