by Bridget Swinney MS, RD, LD
Recently I was invited to Chicago to visit the home office of Kraft Foods and specifically to get an insider’s look at cheese. That was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up. (Disclosure: my travel, hotel and meals were compliments of Kraft on my 2 day trip;. the opinions in this article are my own.)
So I joined eight other food and nutrition colleagues, which included registered dietitians, cookbook authors and mommy bloggers, to discover the world of Kraft. It began the night we arrived, as we dined with a variety of Kraft staff including folks from R & D, the test kitchen, nutrition communications, marketing and even the “Big Cheese” himself, George Zoghbi, President of Kraft Cheese & Dairy. We learned how Kraft as a company has returned to its roots—splitting off many of its brands into another company and keeping the “new” Kraft as one focused on cheese and other American brands.
Bright and early the next day, we went down Kraft memory lane, learning that like most new products, processed cheese was developed to fill a need-- feeding soldiers during World War 1. J.L. Kraft was determined to find a way to blend and sterilize cheese so it could be kept longer without a loss of quality—and thus be used to feed the troops. In 1915, Kraft received a patent for the process of sterilizing cheese—and processed cheese was born. Who knew that J.L. Kraft, who first eked out a living by delivering cheese in a rented wagon and horse, would found a company that would eventually be a multi-billion dollar worldwide corporation! Our day was filled with cool activitities like sensory testing, learning how to describe taste, smell and texture the way a "taster" would, visiting the pilot plant and see Singles being made, having a grilled cheese "cookoff", touring the Kraft test kitchens and pantry (to die for!) and discussions about Research and Development.
I have a confession—up until now, “processed cheese” has not been something I aspired to eat on a regular basis. Once my kids left home a few years ago, I became a bit of a cheese snob. Moving towards the “cleaner” diet I promote in my books, I bought only natural cheese without artificial color or preservatives. So, my Kraft adventure turned out to be a “myth buster” for me:
- Kraft singles don’t contain artificial colors and haven’t for a long time!
- One slice has only 60 calories—it’s a lot of nutritional bang for the buck!
- Kraft Singles are made with cheddar cheese.
- Making processed cheese is relatively simple: mix cheddar cheese, dairy ingredients including whey, an emulsifier, calcium and vitamin D and spices for color. I watched the process and it literally took minutes.
- The plastic that cheese is wrapped in is polypropylene and contains no BPA.
- Starting now, Kraft Singles have no artificial preservatives!
- There has been a 12% sodium reduction in Kraft Singles over the last 3 years
- One slice provides an Excellent Source of Calcium—200 mg and a Good Source of Vitamin D-80 IU.
- To change a product formulation takes months and even years as it has to go through production testing as well as taste testing with trained “tasters.” I know-that sounds like a fun job, but they end up tasting as many as 60 different samples a day and have to be able to tell the difference between the samples!
- The Kraft test kitchen uses every brand of microwave and stove available so that recipes are accurate for all cooks.
At the end of the day, you know that what really makes processed cheese different from cheddar is it’s melt-ability. That’s what makes it slide perfectly over your cheeseburger and stick to the bread on your grilled cheese just right. It gets that way from cooking it and adding an emulsifier. The emulsification process is similar to what happens when you make a white sauce. If you mix flour and milk together it gets all gunky. If you mix flour and butter first and then add milk, the flour acts to keep all the ingredients mixed. In the case of processed cheese, the emulsifier isn’t actually flour or another thickener- it’s sodium citrate.
You may have guessed that there are now Kraft Singles in my cheese drawer, and I’m a believer in the product. As a child nutrition expert, I know that for
the love of cheese, many a kid now gets the calcium he needs in a day, and for that I’m grateful!