The untold truth of American cheese

American cheese is a staple in diners and burger joints across the vast country for which it's named. But given that its patriotic name doesn't exactly provide a great deal of insight into its origins, it may be worth it to look into American cheese and what exactly it is.

As strange as it may sound, American cheese was actually developed in Switzerland, back in 1911 by two food chemists named Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler who came up with the new concoction by heating up Emmental cheese with sodium citrate in as they tried to make a cheese with a better, longer shelf life (via Thrillist). 

The Swiss cheese chemists' plan worked, and the additive helped to extend the shelf life — but the chemical reaction also resulted in a cheese with a smoother consistency. They noticed that the texture of the cheese was slightly velvet-like as well, which would influence the name of Velveeta, a Kraft competitor known for its American cheese, a little further down the road. Over a century ago, American cheese was born... on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.

Kraft gets into the American cheese game

Around the same time that American cheese was developed in Europe, Kraft Foods was looking to carry cheeses with a longer shelf life so that they could ship them farther distances than the short-haul routes delivering cheese they were doing with a horse named Paddy (via MIT). Kraft wasn't the only company trying to get into the processed cheese business. Pabst (yes, as in Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) was also working on a processed cheese spread in an attempt to diversify their business during the Prohibition years (via Thrillist). However, when it became legal to make beer again after the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, Pabst went right back to what they were good at and sold their cheese business to Kraft Foods — its onetime competitor.

Using the same process as the European food scientists, Kraft patented its own version of American cheese in 1916 (which is only slightly ironic since the company's founder, James Lewis Kraft, was born in Canada) and it was a huge hit. Its extended shelf life allowed it to be shipped all over the world, including to Americans serving abroad in the army. "[Kraft] was looking for ways to bring safe, fresh, and convenient cheese to millions of Americans at a time when that wasn't the norm for most people," said a Kraft spokesperson. "That benefit allowed American troops to enjoy sustenance and the taste of home during World War I and World War II."

A rise and then a fall in American cheese sales

Kraft De Luxe Process Slices hit the market in 1950 and were immediately lauded for their convenience (via The New York Times). Problems that had plagued cheese sellers for years were solved. "All the handicaps of store-sliced cheese — variations in thickness of slices, slivered edges, imperfect packages, drying out, curled ends, etc. — are overcome," a magazine called Modern Packaging wrote. As a result, cheese sales skyrocketed with some grocers reporting increases of as much as 150 percent.

And 15 years later, in 1965, the individually-wrapped Kraft singles were introduced after an engineer noticed that that slices of cheese often stuck to each other and invented a cheese wrapping machine as a solution to the issue.

However, given the fact that more health-conscious eaters are making the move away from processed foods such as American cheese, the iconic product has faced hard times lately, with sales dropping for four years in a row.

Fast (and slow) food fans of American cheese

However, many fast food joints still swear by the stuff. Shake Shack, In-N-Out, and Five Guys all use it to top their burger creations. And some gourmet chefs are even fans as well.

Although James Beard Award-winning chef J. Kenji López-Alt says that he often tops a burger with a sharp cheddar or Roquefort, one of the biggest things that American cheese has going for it is its melt-ability factor since its primary purpose for being on a burger is texture (via Serious Eats). The way that it's made prevents it from getting oily and greasy like real cheese when it melts. "If I've taken the time to select and grind some great beef, I want that beef flavor to shine, not get covered up by a powerful cheese that would fare better on a cheese plate," he said. 

But sometimes logic doesn't prevail in the cheese world, or the food world at large, and he also has a message for those who think that they're too good for American cheese. "You stop telling me what fancy-pants cheese to put on top of my cheeseburger, and I won't ask you to put American Singles on your cheese plate," he said.