You may have heard the recent news that processed cheese giant Velveeta had to recall 260 cases of their “liquid gold,” after a batch received an insufficient amount of preservatives and the company feared it would spoil before its December 2014 expiration date. Compared to hard cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and cheddar, which are routinely aged for at least a year (or in the case of Widmer’s Cheddar, six years), an expiration date of approximately seven months seems quite short—especially considering the amount of preservatives in processed cheeses. What gives?
Food editor Willy Blackmore of TakePart recently touched on this topic, urging consumers to skip the processed stuff and go for real cheese instead. He hints that properly stored cheddar can be aged almost indefinitely, citing a Wisconsin story where cheddar was accidentally aged for 40(!) years without ruining the flavor. So why do Velveeta and other processed cheeses rely so heavily on preservatives?
…Velveeta starts with cheese itself, and things pretty much go downhill from there. Scraps of various cheese products are melted into a slurry and emulsified with saturated oils, food coloring, and plenty of preservatives. Thanks to this process (thus giving processed cheese its name), a product like Velveeta might not have all that much cheese in it and thereby has less ability to not only not spoil but to get better with age.
If you want to learn more about the fascinating past & present of processed cheese, lucky you — we have a whole blog series on the history of processed cheese, so get to reading! Just make sure to have a slice of real cheese while reading, okay?