Processed cheese: among those franken-foods we’ll admit we find hard to break up with. Much like their cheese spread cousins, processed cheese is a food product made with real cheese, typically cheddar (which, likely due to its ubiquity in America in the past, is often used interchangeably with the general term ‘cheese’)—plus other stuff to help make it more shelf-stable (among other functions), such as emulsifiers and preservatives. Say what you will of its potential health hazards, or just the fact that it’s a bastardization of real cheese—it’s cheap, it’s available almost everywhere in the country, it’s unbeatable on pan de sal or atop a plate of sweet Pinoy spaghetti—and for this reason deserves to be celebrated as a thing in its own right… whatever that thing is.
For this taste test, we narrowed down the selection only to the most basic types of processed cheese (e.g., no “cheddar” nor quick-melting varieties). We tasted slices of each brand both cold from the fridge and at room temperature, from the very day the package is unwrapped to a few days later. We noticed the words “pasteurized”, “processed”, and “cheese” appear in almost all boxes, but some go by cheese food, some by cheese spread, even cheese product; although we were unable to find sufficient information on all labels as they are written verbatim (see below), we more or less went by their closest counterparts as defined by the US FDA—and took note of their ingredient lists. Our primary focus of course is how they taste as a result overall, without necessarily being pitted against the real stuff—and how they compare to each other, flavor- and texture-wise.
Che-vital is labelled as “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food”, which the US FDA defines as being made from “not less than 51% of one or more “optional cheese ingredients” by weight—and thankfully, lists “Natural Cheddar Cheese” as the first entry on the ingredient list. That’s all well and good, but what about the result? Pretty good, actually; this brand offers a good balance of saltiness and tanginess amidst its milky background. Though relatively firm, you still get an ultra-smooth mouthfeel with very minimal grit.
Ques-O is also labelled as a “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food” and is similar to Che-Vital in many ways, with an almost-identical ingredient list (minus the “Lactic Acid” found on Che-Vital’s). Taste-wise it offers a good balance of salty, creamy, and tangy like Che-Vital, but also a hint of sweetness (one we’d liken to the distinct nutty, sweet flavor of caramelized milk) that brings to mind pastillas. You get a creamy, silky mouthfeel that’s also similar to Che-Vital, just a degree softer.
Eden is labelled as a “Processed Filled Cheese Spread”, the exact term of which we were not able to find solid information on; save for the “filled” part of the label though, we’ll assume it to at least be similar to what is called “pasteurized processed cheese spread”, defined by the FDA as being similar to pasteurized processed cheese food but spreadable at 70 F. As it’s marketed similar to any other bar of cheese (e.g. for slicing, not spreading) however, that is how we’re treating it. Listing “Water” and “Vegetable Oil” before “Natural Cheese”, plus other ingredients like “Buttermilk Powder” and “Nature Identical Butter Flavor” as you go down (among other unpronounceables), it’s among the more filler-laden ones, but we still think it holds its own. Each slice takes on a notably softer, more pliable texture than the others, yielding into a creamy, spread-like consistency that conforms in shape and hardly even crumbles when pinched. Its flavor is on the mellower side, tasting more milky (with a subtle mayonnaise-like richness) than salty or tangy.
Cheezee also lists “Water”, “Vegetable Oil”, and “Milk Proteins” before “Cheese”, and is also labelled as a “Pasteurized Processed Filled Cheese Spread”, which (like in the case of Eden) we’ll assume to be similar to the US FDA’s “pasteurized processed cheese spread”. But it couldn’t be farther from Eden’s, or from being remotely spread-like in result—it even comes up quite similar to Che-Vital and Ques-O with minute (albeit noticeable) differences. Like the said brands, Cheezee comes on the firm side and is more or less smooth, save for a starchiness that at least isn’t too noticeable when used in a sandwich. More notably, Cheezee takes on a more straightforward hit of saltiness compared to other brands.
Danes is the black sheep among the others, labelled as a “Processed Filled Cheese Product”—a term for which we were not able to get solid information on either, but which we assume to be similar to what is called “pasteurized prepared cheese product” (a term thrown around a lot in the US but for which the US FDA does not have a standard definition). The ingredient list has “Water”, “Vegetable Oil”, and “Milk Solids” coming in before “Natural Cheddar Cheese” and is more or less similar to the previous two, but the resulting product might be the least cheese-like of the bunch. It carries a flavor far milder, sweeter, and oddly “mayonnaise-y” rather than salty or tangy. This is fine (although a member of the team hilariously remarks “it actually tastes like bread”), but you also get a chemical note at the end that we can only liken to plastic. Notably firmer and drier than all other brands even at room temperature, Danes reveals an even more noticeable starchiness (similar to their cheese spread) that feels overwhelmingly powdery on the tongue as it melts.
Texture-wise, Eden tops the list for being the softest and creamiest; this makes it nearly impossible to grate, but a pleasure on the tongue when taken plain. Ques-O comes slightly firmer, but still yields a supple, creamy mouthfeel as it melts. Che-Vital and Cheezee are definitely more on the firm end of the spectrum (although the latter carries a mild starchiness unlike the former’s much smoother texture), making them great for grating or cutting into cubes and being added to salads. Danes is much firmer, whether taken cold or at room temperature, and has a starchy, gritty feel.
In terms of flavor, those looking for a bigger wham of intense cheesiness can go for Che-Vital or Cheezee, the latter more salt-dominant and the former offering a more balanced taste that’s right smack-dab salty and tangy. The two cheeses (Cheezee, especially) make for overwhelming bites taken plain—but are great cheeses of choice for topping other dishes, e.g. on tacos or bibingka, where their cheesiness really pops. Ques-O offers an in-betweener in terms of intensity, and hits a good balance between salty, tangy, milky, and slightly sweet—making it a great nibbling cheese. Eden and Danes (the latter brand, for what it’s worth) are more on the mild, milky side, offering more of a creamy richness than saltiness or tang; we wouldn’t use them for nachos, but (for Eden, especially, given its creamy texture) they work their wonders in between warm pan de sal.
In terms of what resembles real cheese the most, Che-Vital and Ques-O may well top the list as both brands list “Natural Cheddar Cheese” first in their relatively short ingredient lists. (We mean this flavor-wise as they run a little too waxy and lack the micro curd-like grit or teensy cheese crystals of real cheddar of course, but we digress.) Cheezee does at least come somewhat close—close enough that the difference is not too noticeable unless eaten straight up. Eden, though different, has a creaminess that gives it a distinctive quality we appreciate in its own right.
There’s a wide range of flavors and textures to be had with these commercially available brands of processed cheese, and each has its own strengths and uses. Though nothing beats the nuanced flavor notes and complexity of real cheese at the end of the day, we’ll always have our soft spot for the always-nostalgic, creamy stuff that is processed cheese.