Even before I started working in the dairy industry after grad school, I was a cheese snob. At least when it came to aged cheddar and what was available at a general supermarket in the 1980s!
Apparently my mother had been a cheese snob, as well. Or maybe Velveeta reminded her of the Great Depression. Whatever the reason, Velveeta did not grace our refrigerator. Kraft Singles did. And Miracle Whip, not Duke’s. But I digress.
In the late 1800s, a Swiss immigrant working for Monroe Cheese Company, Emil Frey, created an American version of Limburger cheese, Liederkranz.
The soft-ripening, spreadable, New York cheese became popular. According to the Monroe Gazette, the factory shipped more than 1,000 boxes (about 2.5 tons) over a two-day period in May 1915.
Monroe Cheese expanded to Pennsylvania, where it opened a Swiss cheese factory. In an effort to save money, the company sent rejects (broken or misshapen cheese wheels) to Frey, challenging him to work his creation magic again.
After two years of tinkering, in 1918 Frey discovered he could create a smooth, velvety cheese by mixing the broken bits with cheese byproducts like whey. He named the concoction Velveeta. Unlike with natural cheddar or Swiss cheeses, cooks could easily melt Velveeta and serve it as a sauce or dip.
Frey turned waste into profit and created a new category of processed food.
Is Velveeta cheese?
The short answer is a definite NO.
In the 1950s, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established standards of identity for processed cheese. Any product labeled pasteurized processed cheese must be a combination of natural cheeses. Pasteurized process cheese is a dairy product that has a longer shelf life than natural cheese.
Pasteurized process cheese food has more moisture, less fat, and a lower pH than its cousin. Its creation temperatures are higher, and it may contain ingredients not permitted in pasteurized process cheese. But it must contain cheese.
The next step down in the FDA standards of identity ladder is pasteurized process cheese spread. These products can contain “sweetening agents, starches, and gums.” In other words, they are even more adulterated.
Today, there’s no way to know if Velveeta really contains cheese. I’m certain that comes as a surprise (not). Here’s why.
In 2002, FDA warned Kraft that it was “misbranding” Kraft Singles and Velveeta cheese spread as a “food” even though the “product does not conform to the definition and standard.”
Kraft now claims Velveeta is a pasteurized recipe cheese product. This is a label for which the FDA has no standard of identity. In other words, it’s hand-waving. Meaningless.
This is the Velveeta ingredient list (emphasis added):
Whey, Milk, Milk Protein Concentrate, Modified Food Starch, Canola Oil, Sodium Citrate, Contains Less Than 2% of Gelatin, Salt, Calcium Phosphate, Sodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid as a Preservative, Milkfat, Cheese Culture, Paprika Extract and Annatto (Color), Enzymes, Natural Flavor, Vitamin a Palmitate.
The 2022 version of Velveeta is a distant cousin many times removed compared to the product Frey developed just over 100 years ago.
Only the name remains the same.
Despite the claim that this is “original” with less fat.
James Kraft and his four brothers incorporated J.L. Kraft & Brothers Company in 1909 in Chicago. They were cheesemongers.
By 1915, they were producing processed cheese, Kraft American Cheese. They were no longer in business to sell the cheeses of other firms.
In 1916, Kraft patented his process of sterilizing Cheddar cheese and packaging it in glass jars or tin cans. Kraft supplied 6 million pounds of this processed cheese for U.S. armed forces in World War I.
In 1930, National Dairy Products Corporation acquired Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corporation (its name then). After operating as a division, Kraft was integrated into the parent organization, which changed its name to Kraftco Corporation in 1969 and then to Kraft, Inc. in 1976.
According to Melanie Villines in The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Cheese: Stories of Kraft Food Inventors and Their Inventions:
“Processed cheese took Kraft from a commodity business with many competitors to an innovator with a unique food product. The invention laid the foundation for the wide variety of processed cheese products now available throughout the world.
“The product incurred the anger of dealers, farmers, cheese makers, as well as newspaper editors and politicians,” Villines said. “There seemed to be no end to the negative comments. It was called embalmed, imitation, moonshine, made over and renovated.”
Kraft (1874-1953) is remembered for his advertising and marketing acumen, pioneering methods still used by the food product industry today.
Kraft wasted no time marketing the cheese product for its nutritional value, arguing the addition of whey (which includes potentially desirable carbohydrates and minerals) made the cheese a kind of dairy wonder-product. The company even paid for a research study at Rutgers University to confirm Velveeta’s nutritional benefits. In 1931, the American Medical Association gave Velveeta its stamp of approval, citing that the product had all the necessary nutritional value to build “firm flesh.”
At the end of 1988, Philip Morris Companies bought Kraft for $12.9 billion. It merged with Philip Morris’s General Foods unit as Kraft General Foods. In 1995, it changed its name to Kraft Foods. On October 1, 2012, it split into two publicly traded companies, a snack food company (Mondelez International) and a grocery company (Kraft Foods).
In 2015, Kraft Foods and Heinz merged. Kraft Heinz is the “third-largest food and beverage company in North America and the fifth-largest in the world with over $26.0 billion in annual sales as of 2020.”