We think we’re just buying cheese. After all, that’s what it says on the package. It’s one of those things that I don’t want to even try to make at home myself because good cheese is an art form.
Cheddar cheese is the most popular cheese in the United Kingdom and the second-most-popular in the United States (behind mozzarella). The U.S. produces more than 3 billion pounds of cheddar cheese every year! And each of us eats about 10 pounds of that. With an average price of about $5 / pound, that’s a whole lot of cheese.
Or is it?
I was in the grocery store and I needed 8 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese for a dish I was planning. So, I grabbed the most popular and best-selling brand in the country, flipped it over, and read the label.
Cheddar Cheese (Pasteurized Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes, Annatto [Color]); Potato Starch, Cellulose Powder, And Calcium Sulfate Added To Prevent Caking; Natamycin (A Natural Mold Inhibitor)
I realize this is actually fairly typical. Let’s tease it apart.
Annatto [Color]. Shouldn’t cheese be orange enough by itself? It’s natural but it shouldn’t be necessary. It’s not a cupcake, it’s cheese. By the way, here’s a picture of the seeds from which annatto pulp is extracted. (I had to include the picture because I think it’s fascinating :)).
Potato Starch. Okay, potatoes are natural. It’s used here to “reduce sweating and binding.” It’s also kind of a white-colored substance so that might explain why they need annatto, I guess.
Cellulose Powder. Sawdust, basically. It’s used to make paper and even plastics like cellophane. It doesn’t dissolve in water, which may be why it’s used in shredded cheese to help prevent caking.
Calcium Sulfate. Again, the caking problem. And I get it, I don’t want to buy a glob o’ cheese if the bag promises shredded. By the way, the main use for this stuff is making Plaster of Paris and stucco. It’s not food — it’s inorganic.
And, finally, Natamycin, a “natural mold inhibitor.” It’s produced during fermentation of a particular strain of bacteria. It’s on the unacceptable ingredients list at Whole Foods.
My point? I wanted cheddar cheese for cryin’ out loud! Cheese. I just wanted cheese.
But not so much.
In My Humble Opinion
I looked at six brands: Kraft, Sargento, Cabot, Tillamook, Horizon Organic, and Organic Valley.
They all more-or-less start with real cheese. It’s the other stuff they’re ALL adding to prevent caking and inhibit mold and paint it orange that should bother us.
Yes, I’ve bought every one of them at one point or another. And I’m usually a fan of a couple of them. But I know from experience, so many products start out wholesome and are changed over time to increase profit margins or replace hard to find ingredients or whatever. I’m good with change — I just prefer changes for the better.
If it’s annatto or potato starch or cornstarch or some other similar ingredient? Not my preference but okay, I guess it’s the price you pay for someone else to shred your cheese for you. But not cellulose. No, thank you. I’m sure it’s probably fine but I’ll pass.
And I’ll pass on chemicals like natamycin whenever I can. I’m not a doctor or a chemist, but I make different choices when ingredients WebMD.com tag as medicines (this one to treat fungal eye problems) and include the precaution “This medicine may be harmful if swallowed.” Just sayin’.
Buy good cheese, in blocks, and grate your own (either by hand or with a food processor etc.). Grating cheese is one of the best answers when someone asks, “Hey, can I do anything to help?”
Block cheese is generally a fair amount less expensive than shredded cheese too. BONUS!
A sharp grater, like a sharp knife, is the easiest to use. I use a box grater or a handheld grater but any reasonable grater should be fine. (You can clean it quick and easy with a small brush — it will shred your sponge.)
And if you’re worried about cutting up your knuckles or you’ve got one of the kids doing the work for you, there are always cut gloves. We used them in the restaurants quite a bit. I keep a pair of these in the drawer just in case. They’re fairly inexpensive and they come in different sizes.
Please read the label. You can buy whatever you choose, but do it mindfully and fully aware of what you’re getting.