American Cheese Vs. Colby Jack

American cheese and Colby Jack cheese are two of the most popular cheeses found in grocery stores and used in cooking in the United States.

American Cheese Vs. Colby Jack

While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between these two cheese varieties in terms of their origins, ingredients, flavor profiles, textures, melting abilities, typical uses, and more.

Origins and History

To understand what distinguishes American cheese from Colby Jack, it helps to first look at the roots of each variety. Despite the similarities, their stories and places of origin differ greatly.

The History of American Cheese

American cheese was born out of the demand for mass-produced, affordable cheese in the early 1900s. The invention of processed cheese provided a shelf-stable product that could be made in large quantities.

James L. Kraft patented the first version of industrial processed American cheese in 1916. He discovered that combining Cheddar cheese with sodium phosphate emulsifiers allowed the cheese to melt smoothly without separating.

This mass-producible processed cheese became popular nationwide under Kraft's branding of "American cheese." While this term has expanded beyond Kraft to include similar processed cheese products, Kraft remains the largest producer of American cheese slices and squares.

The Origins of Colby Jack Cheese

In contrast to the factory-made innovation of American cheese, Colby Jack has roots as a handcrafted artisanal cheese made by combining two natural cheeses.

  • Colby cheese originated in 1885 in Colby, Wisconsin when local cheesemaker Joseph Steinwand altered the traditional cheddar cheesemaking process to produce a milder, more moist curd cheese.
  • Monterey Jack cheese traces its beginnings back to Mexican Franciscan friars in California in the 1700s. When businessman David Jacks began selling this cheese variety in the late 1800s, it became known as "Jack's cheese" or Monterey Jack.

By mixing together the young Colby and Monterey Jack curds, cheesemakers created a marbled, semi-soft cheese that melded the mildest qualities of both. Today, Colby Jack remains a staple natural cheese blend produced by small-scale Wisconsin cheese companies.

Key Ingredients

A quick glance at the ingredients lists shows some of the key differences between synthetic American cheese and natural Colby Jack.

What's in American Cheese?

Traditional American cheese is a processed cheese product made from a blend of natural cheeses (most often Cheddar, Colby, or similar cheeses), milk products, emulsifying salts, food coloring (annatto for the yellow-orange hue), and preservatives.

Under U.S. FDA standards, for a product to be labeled as "American cheese" it must be:

  • Made from at least 2 or more natural cheeses
  • Contain at least 1 dairy ingredient like milk, cream, or whey
  • Incorporate emulsifying salts
  • Have a maximum moisture content of 44%
  • Have at least 31% protein and 30% fat

This standardized combination of real cheese and extenders allows for a very melt-friendly, shelf-stable, and affordable product. However, the processed nature of traditional American cheese gives it a milder, less complex flavor compared to natural cheeses.

The Components of Colby Jack Cheese

In contrast, Colby Jack is a natural cheese made from just a few simple ingredients:

  • Pasteurized cow's milk
  • Starter cultures
  • Rennet
  • Salt
  • Annatto coloring (for the Colby portion)

By blending together fresh Colby and Monterey Jack curds, the cheesemakers layer the subtle flavor and textural qualities of each young cheese into one marbled product. No emulsifiers, fillers, or preservatives are added.

The simpler ingredients allow Colby Jack's fresh, mild milk flavors to shine through.

Flavor Profiles

When tasting American cheese versus Colby Jack side-by-side, the differences in flavor are easily noticeable.

American Cheese Flavor

The flavor of American cheese is perhaps its most controversial characteristic. Does it deserve a place alongside other artisanal cheeses? Or is it a bland, industrial food product?

In its most typical supermarket form – such as presliced Kraft singles – American cheese is prized more for its uniformity and meltability than its flavor complexity. It tends to register as mild, salty, tangy, and creamy.

The emulsifying salts used to make the cheese smooth and stable also limit strong cheesy flavors. Food coloring like annatto can lend it a subtle buttery taste. Overall, expect an easy, inoffensive flavor.

However, when made following artisanal methods with higher-quality dairy ingredients, the flavor of American cheese becomes richer, tangier, and more complex while still retaining that characteristic gooeyness.

Colby Jack's Taste

Since Colby Jack combines two young, mild cheeses, its overall flavor profile remains smooth and delicate. It is known for providing a canvas that allows other ingredients to shine rather than overpowering them.

  • The Colby half contributes a subtly sweet, nutty taste.
  • The Monterey Jack notes register as buttery, milky, and lactic.

When blended, these two cheeses strike a perfect balance. If anything, Colby Jack is critiqued more often for its simplicity than its flavor intensity. But many appreciate it exactly for its versatile, delicate taste.

Texture Comparison

A key area where American cheese differs substantially from Colby Jack is in the texture department.

American Cheese Texture

Traditional American cheese is engineered specifically to deliver an ultra-smooth, pourable melted consistency.

This is thanks to the emulsifying salts, which allow the fats and proteins to combine seamlessly when heated. As it melts, American cheese becomes stretchy and glossy.

When cooled, standard American cheese is soft and pliable but can also slice neatly and feel slightly rubbery. Higher moisture versions (made with more milk or whey) tend to be spreadable right out of the fridge.

Artisanal American cheeses will still melt smoothly thanks to the emulsifiers but often have a firmer, crumblier texture when cold.

Colby Jack Cheese Texture

Since it contains no emulsifiers, the texture of Colby Jack cheese is defined by its natural young, semi-soft character.

When cooled, Colby Jack has a:

  • Supple, creamy body
  • Small mechanical openings scattered throughout
  • Pliable feel that cuts neatly

When heated, Colby Jack melts uniformly into a:

  • Smooth, glossy sauce
  • Gooey, elastic consistency

The moderate moisture content prevents greasiness and allows it to bind well in cooking applications.

Melting Differences

The melt-ability of cheese plays a key role in how well it performs in cooking, so understanding the melting differences between American and Colby Jack cheeses is important.

Melting Properties of American Cheese

First and foremost, American cheese was designed as the ultimate melting cheese. So it's no surprise that melting smoothly is its biggest strength.

Thanks to its:

  • Emulsifying salts
  • Higher moisture content
  • Milk proteins
  • Fats from cheaper extenders

American cheese forms a perfectly smooth, cohesive, velvety sauce when melted. It can be melted again and again without separating. The ideal burger topping!

However, critics say it becomes too homogenous and lacks texture when melted. Artisanal American cheeses melt with a bit more character.

How Colby Jack Melts

While engineered specifically to melt, Colby Jack also performs extremely well when heated while retaining more of its cheese character.


  • Moderate moisture content
  • Milk fat blend
  • Young age

Allow Colby Jack to melt into a glossy, creamy sauce that remains cohesive and elastic. It easily incorporates into dips or baked dishes without clumping.

The mild flavor also shines through without becoming overwhelming when melted. It makes a crowd-pleasing melting cheese.

Typical Uses

Understanding the strengths of each cheese helps determine their ideal culinary uses.

Popular Uses for American Cheese

American cheese becomes a culinary rockstar any time you need an effortless, smooth, melty cheese sauce or topping. Some of its most popular uses include:

  • Grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Cheeseburgers
  • Mac and cheese
  • Quesadillas, tacos
  • Egg sandwiches
  • Pizza
  • Hot dogs
  • Deli sandwiches
  • Sauces and dips

American cheese is a workhorse in the commercial food industry thanks to its reliable melting and processed affordability.

How Colby Jack Cheese Is Used

With its fresh, mild character, Colby Jack plays well with others as a cheese topping or accompaniment. Common applications include:

  • Grilled cheese
  • Quesadillas
  • Tacos
  • Nachos
  • Omelets
  • Paninis
  • Flatbreads
  • Baked pastas or casseroles
  • Charcuterie or cheese boards

Because it melts smoothly without dominating, it can be used similarly to American cheese in cooking. But its artisanal origins make it suitable for upscale applications as well.


American and Colby Jack cheeses complement different flavors when paired with beverages, fruits, vegetables, meats, and other foods.

Popular American Cheese Pairings

American cheese has a place in pairing thanks to its mild, creamy qualities:

  • Beverages: cola, root beer, milk, coffee, American lager beer
  • Fruits and veggies: sliced apples, tomatoes, tart berries, pickles, potato chips
  • Breads and crackers: white bread, rye, bagels, pita
  • Meats: burgers, hot dogs, roast beef, turkey, bacon

Its familiar flavor profile makes it a nostalgic, comforting pairing for American-style dishes.

What to Pair with Colby Jack Cheese

With Colby Jack's versatile simplicity and subtle sweetness, it pairs well with both sweet and savory flavors:

  • Beverages: wheat beers, pilsners, champagne, Riesling
  • Fruits: apples, strawberries, grapes, figs
  • Vegetables: tomatoes, roasted potatoes, grilled zucchini
  • Breads: crackers, flatbreads, sourdough
  • Meats: roast chicken, ham, prosciutto

Its fresh but full-bodied flavor stands up to a variety of ingredients.

Nutrition Comparison

For those watching their dietary intake, the nutrition profiles of American versus Colby Jack offer some significant contrasts.

American Cheese Nutrition Facts

As a processed cheese product, traditional American cheese differs nutritionally from natural cheeses:

  • Higher in sodium, around 400-600 mg per ounce
  • Lower in calcium
  • Lower in protein, around 5-8 g per ounce
  • Higher in carbohydrates thanks to added milk sugars
  • Higher in phosphorus and emulsifying salts

The exact amounts vary by brand. Kraft Singles contain water, milk, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, salt, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, whey, cheese culture, enzymes, annatto extract.

Nutritional Profile of Colby Jack Cheese

As an artisanal natural cheese, Colby Jack offers a more balanced nutritional profile:

  • Higher in protein, with around 7-8 g per ounce
  • Higher in calcium, with about 20% of the RDI per ounce
  • Lower in sodium
  • Lower in carbohydrates and sugars
  • Higher in vitamins A, B12, K2
  • Good source of phosphorus and magnesium

Ultimately, American cheese offers convenience, while natural Colby Jack provides more overall nutrition. But both can have their place.

Appearance and Shape

With a trained eye, you can easily distinguish American cheese from Colby Jack simply by looking at their appearance.

What American Cheese Looks Like

American cheese is best known for its vivid orange-yellow color, which comes from annatto extract. It is commonly found in the grocer's dairy aisle in a few distinct shapes:

  • Presliced - Individually wrapped square slices, such as Kraft Singles
  • Blocks - Rectangular blocks ranging from 4 to 16 ounces
  • Individually wrapped slices - Stacked slices separated by parchment paper
  • Shredded - Finely shredded in bags for convenient melting

The smooth, uniform consistency gives few visual clues about its components.

Colby Jack's Signature Look

With its artisanal origins, Colby Jack has a more rustic, handcrafted look:

  • Random marbling of Colby's orange and Jack's ivory white
  • Wheel or block shape
  • Size ranges from 8 ounces to 5 pounds
  • Rindless
  • Open texture with small mechanical holes
  • Shredded or cubed varieties show the marbling

The marbled coloring and shapes are a tip-off that it's a natural blended cheese.

Price Differences

Due to production factors, American and Colby Jack cheeses are sold at quite different price points.

American Cheese Price

Mass-produced American cheese made for slicing is extremely affordable, thanks to its processed convenience.

  • Sliced - Often $2 to $4 per 8-ounce package
  • Block - Around $2 to $6 per pound
  • Individually wrapped - Approximately $0.30 to $0.60 per ounce

Kraft, Land O'Lakes, and store brands offer low prices with discounts for bulk.

Buying Colby Jack Cheese

As an artisanal cheese, Colby Jack costs noticeably more than American cheese.

  • Block - Approximately $6 to $8 per pound
  • Shredded - Can be $4 to $6 for an 8-ounce bag

Small local dairies producing Colby Jack will be pricier than mass-market Sargento brand, for example. But true cheese lovers find it worthwhile for the premium quality and flavor.

Popularity and Consumption Patterns

American cheese and Colby Jack have very different roles in the U.S. dairy landscape in terms of consumption rates and public perceptions.

American Cheese Consumption Stats

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each year in America approximately:

  • 3 billion pounds of American cheese is produced
  • 10 million metric tons of natural cheese is produced, including cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack
  • The average American eats around 36 pounds of cheese annually, with American cheese representing a large portion

This data indicates the huge commercial dominance of popular processed American cheese slices and squares.

Colby Jack Eating Patterns

In comparison to ubiquitous American cheese, specialty Colby Jack plays a more regional, artisanal role:

  • Most Colby Jack comes from Wisconsin and California cheesemakers
  • It appears more often in the Midwest and West
  • Per capita annual consumption averages around 1.5 pounds
  • It represents approximately 1% of national cheese consumption

So while American cheese has mass commercial appeal, small-batch Colby Jack retains cult culinary status in select regional markets.


American cheese is designed for consistent every day performance rather than artistry. But specialty Colby Jack cheeses have earned acclaim in competitive cheesemaking arenas.

American Cheese Awards

Major cheese awards like the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest historically focused on natural cheese varieties. But recently new categories for more processed cheeses have been introduced.

  • In 2020, Kraft American Singles won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for Best American Cheese Slice.
  • In 2021, Tillamook won with its Cheddar American cheese.

These major brands have tweaked their methods to achieve competition-worthy American cheese.

Colby Jack Cheese Awards

On the natural cheese side, Colby Jack blends have regularly earned acclaim:

  • In 2020, Sartori Cheese won 1st place for its Blended Cheese with a Colby Jack entry at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.
  • In 2021, Rolling Hills Dairy took the top Blended Cheese award for its Colby Jack.
  • In 2022, Maple Leaf Cheesemakers won with its Colby Jack creation.

Artisanal cheesemakers pioneer new techniques and aging periods that allow specialty Colby Jacks to compete with other formal cheese styles.


What's the main difference between American cheese and Colby Jack?

The key difference is that American cheese is a processed cheese product made from a blend of cheeses, emulsifiers, and other dairy ingredients to create uniform, meltable slices and blocks. Colby Jack is a natural artisanal cheese handcrafted by combining fresh curds of young Colby and Monterey Jack cheeses without additives like emulsifiers.

Why does American cheese melt so smoothly?

American cheese melts smoothly into a glossy, elastic sauce thanks to added emulsifying salts like sodium phosphate. These enable the cheese proteins and fats to fully integrate when heated. Natural cheeses like Colby Jack can't quite achieve the same velvety consistency.

Is Colby Jack real cheese?

Yes, Colby Jack is a real natural cheese blending two complementary young cheeses - Colby and Monterrey Jack. No ingredients are added beyond cultures, enzymes, and salt needed for cheesemaking. So it retains a fresh, milky cheese flavor.

What's the difference between Colby and Colby Jack?

Colby cheese is an orange, mild cow's milk cheese that originated in Wisconsin. Colby Jack blends white Monterey Jack curds into Colby curds creating a marbled swirl of orange and white. This contributes a very mellow, buttery flavor and texture.

Can you substitute Colby Jack for American cheese?

In most recipes calling for American cheese, you can substitute an equal amount of Colby Jack. Both melt smoothly. But the flavor of real Colby Jack will be much milder, without the tang and saltiness of processed American cheese.


American cheese and Colby Jack each bring unique qualities to the table. Understanding the contrasts in their origins, ingredients, textures, taste profiles, melting behaviors, typical usage, appearance, costs, and popularity allows you to take advantage of their complementary strengths.

While staid American cheese is prized for its easy meltability and consistency, artisanal Colby Jack offers a more gourmet, flavorful experience.

Cheese Lover Chloe 🧀
Cheese Lover Chloe 🧀

I'm a total cheese fanatic! When I'm not busy studying to be a cheesemaker, you can find me scouring local farmers markets and specialty shops for new and exciting cheeses to try. Brie is my all-time fave, but I also love exploring aged goudas, funky blues, and rich creamy camemberts. Looking forward to sharing lots of melty, gooey cheese pics and reviews!