American Cheese vs. Real Cheese

American cheese has developed a poor reputation among cheese connoisseurs. Marketed as the perfect melty cheese for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, it is commonly referred to as "plastic cheese" and accused of hardly qualifying as real cheese.

American Cheese vs. Real Cheese

But what exactly is American cheese, and how does it differ from more traditional, real cheeses?

What is American Cheese?

American cheese refers to a type of processed cheese product made from a blend of milk, milkfat, whey, milk protein concentrate, and emulsifying agents. It was developed in the 1910s as a way to reuse cheese scraps and prevent waste. By binding shredded cheese pieces with emulsifiers, American cheese gains a smooth, uniform texture that melts easily.

The term "American cheese" broadly applies to both individually-wrapped cheese slices ("singles") and deli-counter cheese slices. However, due to differences in their legal definitions and production methods, singles have less cheese content than deli-sliced American cheese.

Real Cheese vs. American Cheese: Nutrition and Ingredients

Real cheeses like cheddar, Swiss, and gouda are made by coagulating milk protein (casein) out of milk using enzymes like rennet. The curds are pressed together, shaped, and aged to produce cheese. Real cheese contains just three or four basic ingredients: milk, enzymes, salt, and sometimes mold cultures.

American cheese requires more complex processing and additional ingredients to create its signature smooth, uniform, melt-ready texture. A key difference is the addition of emulsifiers like sodium phosphate and sodium citrate, which prevent fats from separating out when melted. Other common ingredients include:

  • Milkfat
  • Whey (liquid remaining after milk curdling)
  • Extra milk proteins
  • Emulsifying salts
  • Additional cheese cultures
  • Preservatives
  • Artificial coloring (annatto)

Nutritionally, American cheese is high in protein, calcium, and vitamins A, D, and B12 - similar to regular cheese. However, it also tends to contain much more sodium, averaging over 400mg per slice. The saturated fat content is also higher, due to milkfat additives.

Overall, real cheese made from just milk, enzymes, and salt contains fewer processed ingredients and preservatives than American cheese. But depending on the specific product, American cheese can still provide valuable nutrition.

Uses in Cooking: Where American Cheese Shines

American cheese may suffer image-wise among foodies, but it undeniably excels in specific cooking applications thanks to its creamy texture and superior meltability.

American cheese is a staple ingredient in classic American dishes like cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, cheese dips, and cheese sauces. When melted, it forms a smooth consistency rather than separating into clumps of fat and protein like many natural cheeses. This makes it an ideal topping for burgers and sandwiches that require an even melt.

In baked macaroni and cheese, the emulsifying salts in American cheese ensure a stabilized, silky sauce rather than a greasy mess. Sodium citrate and sodium phosphate prevent the proteins in cheese from clumping and binding with water, enabling a smooth melt.

Natural cheeses often become grainy or stringy when melted. Cheddar, for instance, can turn into a greasy pool when melted. Mozzarella takes on a rubbery texture when cooked. In cheese sauces, Swiss can separate into clumps.

So for recipes where texture and meltability take priority, American cheese has a purpose and place. Its melting properties are difficult to replicate with real cheese without adding emulsifiers.

Perceptions: Is American Cheese Real Cheese?

American cheese occupies a strange space between "real cheese" and "cheese product." While required by law to be made with at least 51% actual cheese, it diverges from traditional cheese in both processing method and ingredients.

This has led to a poor reputation among cheese aficionados. Critics contend that its uniform texture and mild flavor signify an inferior, highly-processed food product rather than true cheese. Adding emulsifiers and stabilizers distances it from the artisanal qualities prized in fine cheeses.

Among natural cheese supporters, perceptions tend to portray American cheese as:

  • Overly processed
  • Artificial tasting
  • Low quality
  • Not "real" cheese

These negative associations have led it to be nicknamed "plastic cheese" and deemed only fit for low-class uses like cheeseburgers.

Yet these attitudes may rely more on cheese snobbery than facts. In reality, American cheese delivers texture and melt that food scientists have found difficult to achieve naturally. Its production innovations have served functional purposes. And many iconic American dishes would lose their identity without the inclusion of American cheese.

American Cheese: An Efficient Food Innovation

Rather than an artificial imitation, American cheese is better understood as an efficient, intentional product engineered for optimal melting. Its smooth, homogeneous, melty traits directly result from its processing - enabling uses that traditional cheeses cannot easily fulfill.

In food science terms, American cheese takes a new material (cheese) and reformulates it to better meet consumer needs. This follows a common trajectory for food innovations. Consider the parallel example of converting grape juice into stabilized, bottled wine. Manipulation serves a purpose.

The bottom line: American cheese delivers its intended functionality. For melty applications, its benefits outweigh notions of artificiality or overprocessing. Its place in American cuisine owes less to marketing than its legitimate melting properties. The processed nature of American cheese should not itself denote low quality.

Key Takeaway: Dismissing American cheese based on its processed status or mild flavor overlooks its legitimate benefits for specific uses in cooking.

American vs. Real Cheese: Making the Decision

When choosing between real cheese and American cheese, consider the context:

  • For eating raw and cheese boards: Natural cheese offers vastly more complexity, sharpness, and nuanced flavors. American cheese is designed to melt, not to eat in raw form.
  • For delicate flavor dishes: Stronger-flavored cheeses like sharp cheddar can overpower more subtly flavored ingredients. American cheese works well in dishes where you don’t want the cheese to dominate.
  • For melting applications: American cheese melts smooth and creamy without breaking or becoming greasy. Real cheese often becomes grainy, stringy, or oily when melted.
  • For simplified cooking: American cheese requires little prep compared to grating chunks of cheddar or slicing deli Swiss. The convenience factor appeals to many home cooks.
  • For cost savings: Pre-sliced and individually wrapped American cheese costs noticeably less than most natural cheese varieties. For recipes needing a lot of cheese, the savings add up.

As demonstrated, for any given recipe, one type of cheese may prove the better choice based on context and goals. Rather than labeling one cheese “real” and another not, it is more constructive to select the cheese suited for the dish and desired results.

Judging American Cheese on Its Merits

At over 100 years old, American cheese holds an established position in U.S. cuisine. But for consumers aiming to eat wholesome, minimally-processed foods, its reputation prompts wariness. Misconceptions about its production and nutritional value persist.

However, when examined objectively:

  • American cheese does qualify as "real" cheese under U.S. food labeling laws, containing a majority cheese content.
  • It provides the same macronutrients as regular cheese: protein, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, etc.
  • Melting and emulsifying agents serve necessary functional purposes, not just imitation.
  • Modern processing methods enable utilization of cheese byproducts that would otherwise be wasted.
  • Its smooth, uniform melting fills a niche other cheeses cannot easily satisfy.

Rather than dismissing or disparaging American cheese, consumers might accept it for its legitimate place and uses in cooking. Its longevity testifies to demand for its meltability and purpose in classic American recipes.


Is American cheese real cheese?

Yes, according to FDA requirements, American cheese must contain at least 51% real cheese curds. So while it has additional ingredients compared to natural cheese, American cheese does qualify as real cheese, not "cheese product."

Why does American cheese melt so well?

Emulsifying salts like sodium citrate and sodium phosphate prevent fats from separating when American cheese melts. This allows it to create a smooth consistency rather than becoming gritty or oily like many natural cheeses.

Is American cheese bad for your health?

In moderation, American cheese can be part of a healthy diet, as it provides protein, calcium, vitamins A and D. But it also tends to be high in sodium, so consuming large amounts may increase blood pressure and heart disease risk.

What's the difference between American cheese singles and deli-sliced American cheese?

Deli-sliced contains a higher percentage of real cheese (51+%), while singles have less cheese and more additives. Deli-sliced American will generally taste more like real cheese.

Can you substitute regular cheese for American cheese in recipes?

Not easily. Natural cheeses like cheddar lack the emulsifiers that give American cheese its smooth, melty properties. For recipes relying on its meltability, American cheese gives the best results.


Beyond just a cheap cheese slice, American cheese delivers tangible functionality.

Its status as an American classic endures thanks to legitimate merits, not just savvy marketing.

With better understanding of its production and purpose, American cheese can be appreciated for filling a valuable niche in the culinary world.

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!