This American Cheese Is More Likely to Set Your House on Fire Than Melt on Your Bread

Amateur experimenters across the globe seem to share the same curiosities about American cheese.
Jan 24, 2015·
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

According to FDA regulations, the individually wrapped, orange-yellow squares that ubiquitously crown cheeseburgers cannot be called “cheese.” The most popular legal iteration—the one that’s scrawled across the label of Kraft American Singles—is “pasteurized process cheese food,” which the FDA defines as being “made from not less than 51% by final weight of one or more optional cheese ingredients.”

Recently, Mexican chef Jose Raul Reyes decided to take a slice of the not-quite-cheese and torch it with an open flame—because science. This video featured by the Daily Mail, which got more than 1 million views on Facebook—shows the chef holding the cheese over a gas stove and marveling at its refusal to melt. He notes that the cheese resembles plastic more than food.

Viewers were absolutely outraged. One commenter asked, "Why doesn't the health Ministry ban something like this which clearly isn't cheese?" Another commenter wrote, “If anybody wants to know why cancer is on the increase, look no further.”

Reyes isn’t the first one to conduct this massively important experiment; dozens of YouTube videos show the same thing. The clips go something like this: People hold American cheese to an open flame, react strongly to the way it burns, then immediately jump to overreaching health claims.

In this video, a man even burns the plastic wrapper alongside the cheese to show—well, something. “The plastic melted, and the cheese didn’t,” the bewildered experimenter exclaims. “Man, that is some indestructible cheese. No more of this crap in my house.”

But why? Why can’t these slices of American cheese be destroyed with fire, as nature intended? What is the crazy food alchemy that allows them to melt after four seconds in a microwave but leaves them impervious to small butane lighters? Is it preservatives? GMOs?

Not according to the scientists at Kraft Foods, who have been flooded with so many questions that they made a YouTube video in December 2014 explaining the phenomenon.

“Singles are made with emulsifiers, which hold the fat and protein together so they don’t separate even at high heat levels, like an open flame,” the scientist explained. “In the case of natural cheese, where there are no emulsifiers to bind the protein and fat, heat causes the fat to separate and drip off as you would expect.”

The ingredient in Kraft American singles that’s causing all the controversy is sodium phosphate, which is on the FDA’s generally recognized as safe list and is found in many common household food items, such as canned tuna and lunch meat.

As with any food additive, certain health risks are associated with high sodium phosphate levels. Researchers in 2012 found links to cardiovascular disease and kidney problems, but you would have to eat countless Kraft singles in a sitting to digest anywhere close to a worrisome level of the emulsifier.

So rest assured: You can enjoy that melty grilled cheese knowing it’s plastic-free.