American cheese and white American cheese are two very common processed cheese products found in grocery stores and delis across the United States. While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between traditional American cheese and white American cheese in terms of ingredients, production methods, appearance, texture, taste, uses, nutritional content, and more.
This guide examines the characteristics of each type of cheese, how they are made, and the key factors that set them apart. Read on to discover what really distinguishes traditional American cheese from white American cheese.
Introduction to American Cheese and White American Cheese
American cheese refers to a processed cheese product made by blending natural cheeses like cheddar, Colby, and Monterey Jack with other ingredients like emulsifiers, extra whey, milk proteins, and stabilizers. This produces the smooth, uniform texture American cheese is known for.
White American cheese is a variety of American cheese made using the same process but with subtle differences that give it a lighter color. It contains no artificial colors or dyes. Both belong to a category of products known as "pasteurized prepared cheese products."
While authentic cheeses must meet legal standards to be labeled as "cheese," American cheese and white American cheese are classified as "processed cheeses" since they mix natural cheese with other additives. However, they both contain real cheese in their formulas.
Key Takeaway: American cheese and white American cheese are processed cheese products made by blending natural cheeses with additional ingredients. White American lacks artificial coloring, giving it a lighter appearance.
Production Methods and Ingredients
The production processes for traditional American cheese and white American cheese are similar, but slight differences in ingredients and manufacturing techniques impact the final products.
How American Cheese Is Made
To make traditional American cheese:
- Natural cheeses like cheddar, Colby, and Monterey Jack are blended together in their grated form.
- The cheese blend is heated and emulsified at about 165°F.
- Additional dairy ingredients are mixed in, like milk, whey, and milk proteins.
- Emulsifying salts are added such as sodium phosphate or sodium citrate to stabilize the mixture.
- Food coloring, flavorings, and preservatives may also be added.
- The smooth mixture is poured into molds and cooled to form blocks or slices.
How White American Cheese Is Made
White American cheese follows a similar process but with a few key differences:
- The milk is treated with citric acid prior to curdling, giving it a whiter appearance.
- A coagulant like calcium chloride also contributes to the lighter color.
- No artificial coloring agents like annatto or paprika are used.
- The curds may be drained for less time, resulting in lower fat content.
- Other additives like stabilizers and preservatives may still be used.
The absence of food coloring is the main distinction between the production of traditional yellow-orange American cheese versus white American cheese.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese skips artificial coloring steps in its production, relying on citric acid and calcium chloride to achieve a lighter hue.
Appearance and Color
The most obvious difference between American cheese and white American cheese is their visual appearance.
Traditional American cheese has a vibrant yellow-orange color. This hue comes from added coloring agents like annatto, a natural dye made from the seeds of the achiote tree. Other food colorings like paprika or turmeric may also be used.
White American cheese lives up to its name with a pale white or off-white color. The white appearance occurs naturally from the production process without artificial dyes. The citric acid bath and calcium chloride give it a clean, light color.
So while traditional American cheese gets its signature golden color from added spices and dyes, white American cheese achieves its namesake white appearance naturally.
Key Takeaway: The yellow-orange hue of regular American cheese comes from added food colorings, while white American cheese derives its light color naturally from production methods.
Texture and Consistency
White American cheese tends to have a drier, crumblier texture than traditional American cheese. This can be attributed to:
- The shorter draining time in production, which reduces fat content.
- Faster drying that gives it a more brittle and friable texture.
- The lack of annatto, which would add a creamy richness.
Traditional American cheese has a smoother, creamier texture thanks to:
- Its higher fat content from extended draining periods.
- Added emulsifiers and stabilizers that allow fats and moisture to blend uniformly.
- Ingredients like annatto that provide a velvety mouthfeel.
The more pronounced dryness and crumbliness of white American cheese gives it superior slicing and shredding abilities. However, traditional American cheese often melts better thanks to its emulsified structure.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese tends to be drier and easier to slice or shred, while traditional American cheese has a creamier, smoother melted consistency.
White American cheese and traditional American cheese have slightly different flavor profiles as well.
White American cheese has a:
- Mild taste - Lower fat content gives it a more delicate, subtle flavor.
- Saltiness - Added salt contributes to its salty notes.
- Hint of tang - Subtle citric acid flavors come through.
Traditional American cheese is:
- Richer - Higher fat content translates to a full, bold cheese flavor.
- Tangy - More pronounced acidity and tanginess.
- Sharper - Stronger aged cheese notes like cheddar come through.
- Savorier - Trace spices and seasonings enhance overall flavor.
The additional fat, whey, and emulsifiers in traditional American cheese boost its complex, robust cheese flavors. White American cheese provides a simpler, milder cheese taste.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese has a delicate salty flavor, while traditional American cheese is richer, tangier, and more complex.
The nutrition profiles of American cheese versus white American cheese are fairly comparable, but some differences arise:
- Fat content - White American cheese is lower in total fat and saturated fat due to shorter draining periods.
- Sodium content - White American cheese tends to be lower in sodium as well.
- Calories - White American cheese has moderately fewer calories per serving.
- Vitamins - Both contain decent amounts of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A.
- Cholesterol - Similar cholesterol levels.
- Protein - American cheese may have slightly more protein per serving.
So while neither can be considered a "healthy" choice, white American cheese does provide a marginal benefit with its reduced fat and sodium levels. But overall, both should be eaten in moderation.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese is modestly lower in fat, sodium, and calories than traditional American cheese but both are still high-fat, high-sodium products.
Uses in Cooking
White American cheese and traditional American cheese each have advantages and best uses in cooking:
White American cheese works well for:
- Grilled cheese sandwiches
- Deli sandwiches
- Mac and cheese
Its mild flavor and superior melting make it versatile for many dishes.
Traditional American cheese is commonly used for:
- Hot dogs
- Grilled sandwiches
- Cheese sauces
- Tex-Mex dishes
Its bold flavor and creaminess suit traditional American comfort foods.
Either variety can top pizzas, flatbreads, nachos, soups, appetizers, etc. Their differences simply make one or the other more suitable depending on the meal.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese fits well in delicate dishes and pastas thanks to its mildness and meltability, while traditional American cheese matches strongly flavored American classics.
Are They Interchangeable?
White American cheese makes an acceptable substitute for traditional American cheese in most recipes. Its meltability mimics traditional American cheese nicely.
However, substituting traditional American cheese where a recipe calls for white American cheese may overpower the other ingredients. The bolder, tangier flavor of regular American cheese could dominate in dishes where white American cheese's mild qualities are intended to complement.
So in summary:
- White American cheese can replace traditional American cheese well.
- Traditional American cheese may not substitute for white American cheese as seamlessly.
Consider the flavor profile of the entire dish when deciding which variety to use.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese can substitute for traditional American cheese, but traditional American cheese may not replace white American cheese as easily without dominating the other flavors.
Regional Preferences in the U.S.
Regional cuisine preferences impact whether traditional yellow American cheese or white American cheese is favored:
- Northeast - White American cheese is very popular, especially for deli sandwiches, pizzas, and appetizers.
- Midwest/South - Yellow American cheese dominates as a quintessential cheese for burgers, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, etc.
- West Coast - More eclectic tastes mean less reliance on American cheese in general, but yellow remains most common.
- Major cities - Greater diversity of cuisines reduces the prominence of American cheese across colors.
The Northeast exhibits the strongest affinity for white American cheese in particular, while other regions lean towards the traditional yellow variety. Rural areas tend to use American cheese frequently across all dishes.
Key Takeaway: White American cheese enjoys particular popularity in the Northeast, while traditional yellow American cheese remains the overall dominant choice nationally.
FAQs About American Cheese Varieties
Is white American cheese real cheese?
White American cheese is not technically considered "real" cheese since it mixes natural cheese with other ingredients. Legally, it is labeled as a "pasteurized prepared cheese product." But it does contain some actual cheese in its formula.
Is white American cheese healthier than yellow?
White American cheese is marginally healthier, with modestly lower amounts of fat, sodium, and calories compared to traditional yellow American cheese. But neither can be considered a healthy choice.
What is in white American cheese?
White American cheese contains a blend of natural cheeses (cheddar, Colby, etc.), milk, whey, milk proteins, emulsifying salts, stabilizers, and preservatives. No artificial coloring is added.
Why is American cheese orange?
The signature orange hue of traditional American cheese comes from added food colorings like annatto, paprika, turmeric, and other spices that tint it yellow-orange. White American cheese skips this coloring step.
Is white American cheese better for grilled cheese?
Many cooks prefer white American cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches, thanks to its mild flavor and superior melting qualities that nicely complement the bread.
While white American cheese and traditional American cheese share some fundamental characteristics, from their ingredients to their smooth, creamy textures, noticeable differences set them apart. Factors like color, mouthfeel, taste, uses, nutritional profile, and regional popularity distinguish white American cheese from its classic yellow-orange counterpart.
Both play important roles in American cuisine, whether topping a juicy burger or taking center stage in an ooey-gooey grilled cheese sandwich. Understanding the nuances of each variety helps cooks choose which option best suits their recipes and also sheds light on the science and processes behind these cheese products.
So next time you reach for a package of American cheese slices, consider whether traditional yellow or white would better complement your meal or deliver the exact taste, texture, and visual appeal you're seeking. With this guide illuminating their unique qualities, you can determine the right choice for your dishes!