Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: Natural Versus Processed Cheese

If you know anything about me, you know that I tend to like my food natural. I would love to avoid all sorts of processed foods permanently if possible. I know not all my friends feel the same way, however, and that's fine. When Sargento approached me with the opportunity to do a natural versus processed cheese tasting with friends though? How fun could that be!

And so tonight they came over for dinner (a meal that Mister Man planned, which was so cute!) and before I fed them my food, I used them for a little taste test.

We had a little crackers and cheese appetizer. Before we dug in, we read a little about natural and processed cheese and read the tasting guide. I've done wine tastings before, and I sorta know how those go... cheese tastings though? This was new to me.

What do you do in a cheese tasting?

First, you look at the cheese. When comparing the two, it's obvious which is the processed cheese. Cheese shouldn't be shiny. It just flat out shouldn't. No matter the color of the natural cheese - and they will vary based on type - it should have a texture to it, and it should not be glossy.

Touching the cheese is next. When you bend it, it should break and not roll. Some cheese are soft, but natural cheeses in general shouldn't feel mushy. The processed cheese felt sticky and just ... not quite right to us.

Then we smelled the cheese. My husband picked up on the smell of cooked milk, which doesn't belong in cheese in our opinions. The natural cheese has a sharp smell. It smells like cheese and is much stronger than the more muted tones of the processed cheese.

Lastly, we tasted the cheese (see, it really is like a wine tasting, isn't it?). The processed cheese tasted flat to us. And it was very salty. While some natural cheese can be salty, that isn't the predominant note, as it was for the processed cheese. We enjoyed the flavor of the natural cheese better, especially the continuing flavor.

One of our tasters tried to eat the processed cheese. As she tried to peel it up from the plastic wrap it's surrounded by, it just broke apart every time she tried to pick it up. She did her best, but eventually she gave up about halfway through the slice.

That didn't sell all our tasters on the natural cheeses. Some of them purchase processed cheese for their families because their families ask for it, and they didn't really see the difference. As one friend stated, "Now that I've seen this and tasted the difference and read about the cheeses, I'm not buying the processed kind any more!" Another friend wanted me to point out to Sargento that "this was worthwhile. They just got a new customer in me!"


Natural cheese is made with only milk, cheese cultures, enzymes, and salt. It's aged naturally and tested by professional cheese graders to ensure the quality. It is made in a block and cut directly from the block, then packaged - not melted while being made. It needs to be refrigerated (that seems like a "duh" statement, doesn't it?). Interestingly, a 21 gram slice of Sargento cheddar has 130mg of sodium.

Processed cheese has emulsifiers added to it, as well as preservatives like Sorbic Acid. It is typically heated to 180 degrees and cooked with direct steam, removing delicate flavors. Many processed cheeses are sold on shelves and not refrigerated for months at a time. And creating that slice in the little plastic package? It is often pumped into plastic packaging and run over a series of rollers to form the slice. Tellingly, a 19 gram slice (smaller than the natural cheese slice) has 250mg of sodium. With the new recommendation that we get no more than 1500mg of sodium per day, that's a lot of our daily sodium in one small package!

I think I made some new converts to natural cheese. It wasn't necessarily my intention, but it was interesting to see the reactions not just to the nutritional information but to the cheeses side by side. Definitely a fun evening for all of us!

In the interest of full disclosure, I was provided with a sample of both Sargento sliced cheese and a processed cheese food, along with compensation courtesy TheMotherhood and Sargento. That said as always, all opinions expressed remain my own.

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