Listen To The Story

Perhaps nothing says unhealthy processed food more than American cheese. They don't even call it cheese on the label, they call it "cheese food." Yet, we still buy hundreds of millions of pounds of it every year. Now, a health-conscious competitor wants in on that market share.

But, can you still call it American cheese if it's unprocessed and has only four ingredients -- all of which you can pronounce? The country's largest co-op of organic farmers says yes. Wisconsin-based Organic Valley is out to reinvent our de facto national cheese.

The company recently wrapped a two-month nationwide "cheese revolution" tour and gave away more than fifteen thousand grilled cheese sandwiches made with its new organic American Singles.

Audrey Quatel, who handled the company's marketing on the North Carolina leg, says, "I think it's important that people know what's in American cheese, and especially when it says 'cheese food' on the label. Ours just says cheese."

In the parking lot of a Whole Foods in Charlotte, Kim DeRhodes took the taste test: "Mmm, very good. It just doesn't taste as fake as the regular cheese," she says.

Pasteurized processed cheese food does start out with real cheese, but it's melted and mixed with emulsifiers and preservatives. The final product can't be called cheese by law, and at some point it got a reputation of being unhealthy. Some in the industry say that's a bum rap.

Kraft Foods, the country's best-selling brand of American cheese, declined to comment. John Umhoefer, who is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association, one of the cheese industry's top trade groups, says, "It's a dairy-based product. But you know it's the product that's not going to be called gourmet, it's not going to be called artisan."

Plenty of consumers agree. The market research firm SymphonyIRI says in the past year, sales of processed or imitation cheese slices topped two billion dollars nationwide. 

John Umhoefer says with a market share like that he doesn't see organic alternatives winning a war on processed American cheese. But, he adds, there's room in the industry for both.