Growing up, who didn’t have Velveeta cheese in the pantry? It was crucial for making queso, the ideal ingredient for quick mac and cheese, and melted perfectly into omelets. But now that you've gotten more conscious about your food choices, you have to wonder… what is Velveeta made of, exactly?
According to Kraft, Velveeta “melts smooth and creamy for ultimate appeal.” Translation: it melts better than regular cheese because -- shocker -- it’s not real cheese. Sure it has elements of cheese, but Velveeta is more like a cheese on (genetically modified) steroids than anything else.
How did America fall head-over-heels for a cheese that isn't really cheese? The answer may surprise you.
The History of Velveeta Cheese
Velveeta cheese was first invented at the beginning of the 20th century, when New York’s Monroe Cheese Company was looking for a solution to a very big problem: broken cheese.
Swiss cheese wheels coming out of a Pennsylvania factory were often less than perfect, and this unsellable cheese was losing the company money. The solution, a smooth cheese food product made with leftover cheese bits, was invented by Swiss immigrant Emil Frey, by combining the broken pieces with whey, a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. Thus, Velveeta was born in 1923.
The Velveeta cheese company was acquired by Kraft in 1927, and Velveeta changed from a cheese glue to a “healthier” cheese option, marketed to women who wanted to watch their figures and those looking for a milder cheese option.
"We as a culture have tended to gravitate toward foods that were—and are—predictable, unchanging and relatively bland," Laura Werlin, cheese historian and author of The New American Cheese told Smithsonian.com. "Processed cheese fit the bill, and it is also easy to use."
Image: Kristian Bjornard
It wasn’t until Kraft released Kraft singles in the 1950s – with the even more convenient single-serving packaging -- that the company began marketing Velveeta as more of a sauce or dip ingredient to avoid competition between the two products.
Cooking with Velveeta Cheese
From its beginnings as cheesy leftovers, Velveeta has rarely been a stand-alone product. Some of the recipes for Velveeta concocted to sell the product include:
- Pouring a Velveeta cheese sauce over toasted peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.
- Mixing Velveeta cheese with chocolate to make chocolate fudge.
- Cold baked bean and Velveeta cheese sandwiches, for an easy dairy serving to include at picnics.
- Broiled Velveeta cheese, pineapple, and peanut butter sandwiches. Topped with a Maraschino cherry, because why not?
- Queso, which is made by combining Ro-Tel and Velveeta cheese. In 2002, competitors ConAgra and Kraft began selling Ro-Tel and Velveeta side-by-side in stores to boost sales of both products.
What is Velveeta Made of?
While Velveeta used to be made of real cheese, today, Velveeta cheese is made with whey protein concentrate and milk protein – meaning that it is not technically cheese.
The FDA noticed this in 2002, when it sent Kraft a warning letter asking the company to take “cheese spread” off its packaging and replace it with something a bit closer to the truth. While there are elements of real cheese in Velveeta – like, you know, milk – to call it actual cheese is a bit of a stretch. Which is why it is now labeled as a “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.” Say that five times fast.
Why Isn't Velveeta Cheese?
1. Its Ingredients List
The official list of Velveeta ingredients is as follows: Milk, Water, Whey, Milk Protein Concentrate, Milkfat, Whey Protein Concentrate, Sodium Phosphate, Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Calcium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Alginate, Enzymes, Apocarotenal, Annatto, Cheese Culture.
Meanwhile, the ingredient list for most cheeses is milk, rennet, and maybe a little bit of salt. But the longer ingredients list isn't the most startling element here.
Here’s the thing: you shouldn’t need to add whey to a cheese, because whey is actually produced during traditional cheesemaking (it’s the liquid that’s left after the milk has curdled and been strained).
2. All Those Added Preservatives
While many varieties of supermarket cheese do have preservatives, true cheese doesn't actually need artificial additives, because the cheesemaking process actually creates natural preservatives.
Non-starter (NS) bacteria are the second wave of bacteria that appear in cheese during the cheesemaking process. Mainly made up of mesophilic lactic acid bacteria, these naturally occurring organisms contribute to the flavor and storage ability of different cheeses.
Velveeta, on the other hand, contains quite an array of distinct coloring and preserving agents.
Basically it can’t be called real cheese because it has so many additives in it.
3. It's Lacking in Calcium, but Not in Lactose
One ounce of Velveeta contains 13 percent of your daily value for calcium, as opposed to cheddar, which contains 20 percent. But even though Velveeta has less calcium, it actually has more lactose.
It might seem strange, but cheese actually doesn't contain all that much lactose. While it is made from milk, the natural process of making cheese removes much of the lactose -- or milk sugars -- which are consumed by the bacteria that are turning the milk into cheese, much in the same way that yeast eats away at the sugar in grape juice to turn it into the alcohol in your favorite bottle of wine.
But Velveeta can't say the same about its product. Because Velveeta is not put through the natural processes of cheesemaking, it actually ends up with a whopping 9.3 percent volume of lactose, as compared with actual cheeses like Swiss (3.4 percent), Roquefort (2 percent), or Stilton (.8 percent). Velveeta actually has more lactose than milk itself -- which has a lactose content ranging from 4.8 to 5.2 percent, and is much closer in makeup to evaporated milk, at 10 percent lactose.
People Just Can’t Get Enough of Velveeta Cheese
So why are people so in love with Velveeta? It’s bright yellow (which for some reason has come to scream “cheese!”) and it melts. Really well. After all, it was developed to do just that.
But America's real love of Velveeta was best illustrated in January 2014, when one of the strangest-timed product recalls ever occurred. Kraft announced a Velveeta shortage just before the Super Bowl, when more than a million pounds of Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Singles were recalled because Kraft forgot to mention that they contained hydrolized soy protein. Yum.
While Kraft denied allegations that it was just a big publicity stunt, the buzz, dubbed Cheesepocalypse, did increase sales of the product and hype around this classic American food.
It also spawned a host of imitation Velveeta recipes, which are particularly useful for those wondering, “Is Velveeta cheese gluten-free?” (While most agree that it is, Kraft does not label Velveeta gluten-free. And at any rate, you shouldn’t have to ask that about cheese.)
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