Processed cheese: Crafting the perfect slice

From its humble beginnings in Switzerland over a century ago to its diverse array of offerings available today, processed cheese has captured the hearts and palates of consumers worldwide. Join us as we travel into the origins, innovations, and technical intricacies of Processed cheese

Innovative Beginnings

Its origins can be traced back to Switzerland in 1911 when Walter Gerber developed a cheese with increased shelf-life. The idea was influenced by fondue and cheese sauces. Gerber shredded natural Emmentaler cheese and heated it with sodium citrate to produce a homogeneous product that firmed up upon cooling.

Five years later, Canadian James L. Kraft applied for the first U.S. patent for a method of making processed cheese. This method halts the maturation process by sterilization. Kraft Foods Inc. later developed the first commercially available shelf-stable, sliced processed cheese, which was introduced in 1950.

The Science Behind

The manufacturing costs of processed cheese are significantly lower compared to natural cheese. This enables industrial-scale production volumes, lower distribution costs, and much faster production time compared to traditional cheeses. Because processed cheese does not separate when melted, it is used in a variety of dishes, such as soups, sauces, salads, and sweet spreads. Unlike some natural cheeses, heating does not alter its taste or texture.

Hot processed cheese sandwich. Homemade grilled cheese sandwich for breakfast.

Processed cheese is made with the goal of being meltable without fat separation from the protein. A traditional and natural cheese consists of individual fat globules trapped in a casein network, where calcium holds the casein molecules together. When natural cheese is subjected to heat treatment, a lumpy combination of protein gel and liquid fat typically appears.

To prevent this phase separation, calcium-binding agents are added during processed cheese production. These calcium-sequestering agents, commonly named melting salts, include sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, citrate, and tartaric acid. They prevent calcium from holding the casein network together. During the heating process, smaller casein molecule connections can mix better with the fat, forming microscopic droplets instead of large lumps, which results in a homogeneous product.

The longer shelf-life of processed cheese is not directly because of the melting salts, but it allows pasteurization or sterilization methods without forming lumps. The heating process, in combination with the right stabilizing system, improves texture and structure due to its water-binding capacity and prolongs the shelf-life.

Processed cheese (standard, organic, analogue, and/or vegan) is produced in a wide range of different textures. To reach the requested texture and functionality (jelled, creamy, spreadable, re-meltable, elastic, non-sticky, etc.), the right stabilizing system needs to be used. Typical stabilizers, found in our SWISSGUM D-range, are locust bean gum, guar gum, tara gum, carrageenan, and/or xanthan gum.

Addressing Concerns

Processed cheese is sometimes criticized for its possible health effects because of the use of phosphates. Nowadays, citrates and tartaric acid are increasingly used. Tartaric acid from organic wine is used as a sequestering agent in organic processed cheese.

Processed cheese always contains natural cheese, which may include all cheese types, as well as other ingredients such as milk- and/or whey protein, caseinate, melting salts, stabilizers, milk- and/or vegetable fat, water, and flavouring agents (e.g., herbs and spices).

 

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A Wide Variety

Today, there is a wide variety of processed cheeses in various textures available in the market. The trend for new processed cheese recipes continues, especially regarding vegan alternative products. Processed cheese has some technical advantages compared to natural cheese. These include a better and longer shelf-life, resistance to separation when cooked (meltability), and a uniform look and physical behaviour

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Processed cheese is offered in a variety of forms, including spreads packed in aluminium foil (triangles) that are slightly jelled to avoid a sticky texture, spreads that are soft to medium firmness and mainly sold in cups, spreads with honey-like texture in glasses, mainly based on fresh cheese, spreads in tubes that are soft, slightly jelled, and shiny, bake-stable spreads used as cheese fillings, blocks with a very firm texture for salad cubes, short texture, blocks with firm and elastic texture for slices, grated cheese blocks for pizza mainly from analogue cheese, slices with SOS (Slice on Slice) for fast food restaurants, elastic, meltable, firm, and slices with IWS (Individually Wrapped Slices) for supermarkets.

Partnering for Success

From spreads and blocks to slices and grated options, there is a processed cheese for every palate and occasion. We await the opportunity to support you with our expertise and premium stabilizing systems of our SWISSGUM D-range.