No cheese (or “cheese”) brings as much controversy with it as American cheese. The plastic-wrapped singles that grace fast-food burgers and kids’ grilled cheese lunches are loved by some and hated by many in the U.S. these days.

Mccoy kelly
Progressive Publishing

It’s particularly out of favor with millennials, who mostly loathe its processed, not-so-healthy nature. Yet its meltability and resulting ooey-gooeyness is championed by some celebrity chefs, notably Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives fame (often popping up in his culinary game show, Guy’s Grocery Games) and Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, who has defended the product as “sacred and delicious” on Twitter.

Canadian immigrant James Kraft was experimenting to find a cheese with a longer shelf life on this side of the pond in the early 1900s, as were cheesemakers across the Atlantic in Switzerland (without the cheddar component; they used their homeland version of Swiss cheese, naturally). In both cases, emulsifying salts helped preserve the product as well as adding the velvety texture and melting quality.

Kraft patented his version in 1916, and a descendant patented a cooling, slicing and singles packaging process in 1944, creating the plastic-wrapped thin slices we know. The other main brand of American cheese, Velveeta, was first made by Swiss immigrant Emil Frey in New York in 1918, separate from Kraft’s effort. The Velveeta Cheese Company was incorporated a few years later … and quickly bought by Kraft Foods in 1927. Neither Kraft Singles nor Velveeta are considered “real” cheese by the FDA; they are sold as “cheese product,” a term coined for items with less than 51% cheese.

Real cheese or not, American cheese was considered convenient and tasty in the 1940s and ’50s, not only consumed in most households on a regular basis but shipped overseas to the troops as a much-enjoyed taste of home. This led to an acquired taste for American cheese that still survives in, of all places, South Korea.


Like in Hawaii after World War II, U.S. Army surplus abounded after the Korean War – including leftover, warehoused hot dogs, Spam and American cheese. The Koreans soon discovered that American cheese offered a refreshing relief to the spiciness of many of their beloved dishes, including ramen, Korean BBQ and stir-fried rice. It is a common topping to all of the above and more in Korean street food – and is beginning to come full circle, back home to the U.S. as part of the current Korean food craze.

While American cheese is only considered a cheese product, less than 51% actual cheese, it also contains whey, milk, milkfat and milk protein concentrate.