The Curd Wars: Processed Cheese vs. Real Cheese

Vitamin D

 hipster cheese

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


As information about health and nutrition is becoming more abundant and substantiated, so are the drastic shifts in economic prosperity for some of America’s oldest industries. Take, for example, the dairy industry.

With cow’s milk sales slumping, large-scale dairy farmers have been using domestic cheeses, such as blocks of American cheese, as a crutch to weather the storm. But that may soon fail them too. Growing hordes of millennials are choosing to open their billfolds for artisanal cheeses and shun the more traditional processed cheeses.

According to Nielsen Analytics, almond milk, has seen sales grow 250 percent over the past five years. Now dairy farmers are seeing the same trend happen in the cheese sector, with nut-based, vegan cheeses, goat cheeses and raw cheeses starting to gain momentum.

In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) bought $20 million worth of cheese to donate to food banks and pantries in an effort to help America's struggling dairy producers. Despite the brief relief afforded by the government, the demand for processed cheese, and dairy products overall, is declining, and so are the profits.

Even celebrities are turning their backs on processed cheese. Gwyneth Paltrow, the founder of lifestyle company GOOP, was asked if she would rather smoke crack than eat cheese out of a can. Her reply was “Hell yes. You know, crack might be extreme, but spray cheese is not my kind of party.”

Bloomberg online recently published a story entitled ‘Millennials Kill Again. The Latest Victim? American Cheese.’ Bloomberg reports, “U.S. sales of processed cheese, including brands like Kraft Singles and Velveeta… are projected to drop 1.6 percent this year, the fourth-straight year of declines, according to Euromonitor International.”


“Say Cheese?”

So what could be fueling this trending divergence from the traditional ‘yellow cheeses’ most of us grew up with to whole ingredient, natural cheeses?

Are millennials really to blame, or is it more to do with the increasing demand for better quality ingredients that are both nutritious and that you can easily pronounce?

It may be that millennials’ hunger for whole foods is in direct conflict with the TV dinner generation, but it isn’t just younger Americans that are waking up to the idea that processed foods are not good for your health.

In an effort to appeal to clean-label consumers, Kraft Foods announced that starting in 2016 their Original Kraft Macaroni & Cheese would no longer contain artificial preservatives or synthetic colors. They will be replaced with natural sources like paprika, annatto and turmeric.

Restaurant chains, local bars, grocery stores and family owned markets are all jumping off the processed cheese bandwagon to follow the dollar. If there were ever an example of consumers deciding how the market shifts, cheese would be it. Processed cheeses are getting abandoned, and possibly for good reason.

Even the fast food chains are jumping on the ‘real cheese’ train. Wendy’s is offering asiago cheese on its burgers. And Panera Bread is replacing American cheese with a four-cheese combo of fontina, cheddar, monteau and smoked gouda. The result: higher sales.

“The new food consumer is moving toward fresher, cleaner labels, and transparency is king,” said Suzanne Ginestro, chief marketing officer at Campbell Soup Company.

On the other side of the cheese spectrum lies Peter Cotter, general manager of cheese and dairy for Kraft Heinz. His company has deployed a 30-person marketing team dedicated to finding ways to get American cheese back into more home by offering textual qualities that healthier cheese can’t, like ’the melt’ factor.’ 

“Honestly, you can’t get that in a natural cheese,” Cotter said. “It’s a very unique product. The creamy smooth texture and melt of the cheese. The natural cheeses, they just don’t melt that way.”

But should ‘the melt factor’ really win out over Americans choosing the healthier option?


Processed Cheese vs. Natural Cheese

Let’s take a closer look at two key players in this cheese drama. Velveeta cheese and Kraft Singles are two of the most popular processed cheeses. In 1927 Kraft bought out Velveeta and they have been one and the same ever since. Though 40 percent of U.S. households buy Kraft Singles, overall sales are flat.

Originally Velveeta was made from real cheese. Today, it's mainly whey protein concentrate, milk protein concentrate and a very long list of preservatives (full list of ingredients here). By the Food and Drink Administration (FDA) standards, that's not real cheese, which is why the FDA forced Kraft to change its label from "cheese spread" to "cheese product."

The biggest difference between processed cheese and natural, real cheese is the presence of whey, emulsifiers and extenders in processed cheese.

Emulsifiers (typically sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, tartrate, or citrate) reduce the tendency for tiny fat globules in the cheese to coalesce and pool on the surface. Because processed cheese does not separate when melted, it is used as an ingredient in a variety of dishes.

Real cheese is made from raw, unpasteurized milk, and is full of healthy saturated fats, great flavor and wholesome nutrition. Unfortunately, many of the cheeses sold in grocery stores and used in restaurants are not real, raw cheeses.

Most of the cheese products sold in America today are not made from organic milk. When the cows producing the milk to make some of the traditional grocery store cheeses are fed antibiotics and growth hormones, these chemicals are passed along to the consumer in the cheese that is produced. This in turn makes the fats and nutrition you absorb not the healthiest option.

Natural cheese has a variety of nutrients including:

  • Vitamin D. Cheese contains the powerful nutritional triad of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K2, which together channel calcium into your bones and teeth while keeping it out of your arteries.
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Riboflavin is a vitamin that is needed for growth and overall good health. It helps the body break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats to produce energy, and it allows oxygen to be used by the body.
  • Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that your body can’t make on its own, so you need to get it from your diet or supplements. Cheese is a great source of vitamin B12. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, and others at high risk of B12 deficiency may want to get a nutrient test to make sure they’re getting enough of this nutrient.
  • Probiotics. Real cheese is also loaded with healthy probiotics. Its fermented qualities ensure that cheese supports gut health while boosting the immune system too. In moderation, cheese is a perfectly pleasurable and acceptable food to enjoy with your favorite meals.

Cheese is Not the Enemy

The slow switch to ‘real cheese’ is just one facet of a much broader trend. While applying all the knowledge that we now have about the benefits of whole foods and nutrition, if given a choice, it is no surprise that people are altering their grocery lists to accommodate healthier food options.

It isn’t just the younger generations making the jump from processed foods to whole and organic foods. According to the Organic Trade Association, “American consumers in 2017 filled more of their grocery carts with organic, buying everything from organic produce and organic ice cream to organic fresh juices and organic dried beans. Organic sales in the U.S. totaled a new record of $49.4 billion in 2017, up 6.4 percent from the previous year. Sales of organic non-food products rose by 7.4 percent to $4.2 billion, setting another new benchmark.”

This may be an indicator that Americans overall are starting to consider factors like how their food is farmed and sourced, before making a purchase.

One common misconception is that eating cheese can negatively impact cholesterol levels. But a study published in the medical journal Nutrition and Diabetes suggests that cheese consumption has no negative effects on an individual’s cholesterol level.

“What we saw was that in the high consumers [of cheese] they had a significantly higher intake of saturated fat than the non-consumers and the low consumers and yet there was no difference in their LDL Cholesterol levels," said Dr. Emma Feeney, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science.

Nevertheless, it is important that you consult with a competent medical professional to understand your dietary restrictions and freedoms.

Whatever your preference may be, real cheese or gooey processed cheese, it is important that you understand the difference between the two so you can weigh your options accordingly. After all, it is your health and wellness that is the most important thing at the end of the day.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.



Related Products

Minerals - The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy