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David Lissner
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Chicago makes cheesey history

Kraft Singles

James L. Kraft, a Canadian immigrant, began his wholesale cheese business in Chicago in 1903, peddling cheese to grocers from a horse-drawn wagon. The J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co. started producing its own cheese in 1914. Kraft was an innovator in increasing the shelf life of cheese, at first packaging it in small jars or foil packets to retain freshness.

James L. Kraft

James L. Kraft

In 1916, he patented a process cheese, using shredded natural cheddar heated at 175 degrees for 15 minutes to kill mold and bacteria and emulsifying it with sodium phosphate. The system stopped the cheese’s natural aging process and prevented fats and solids from separating, creating a mild, consistent, meltable product that could be stored almost indefinitely, and moreover, could start with low-grade cheese.

Kraft sold his product as “cheese” up until competing natural-cheese vendors appealed to legislators in Wisconsin and the federal government to call it something else. Among the terms they suggested was “embalmed cheese,” but ultimately “pasteurized process cheese” was settled on. By law, it must contain at least 51 percent natural cheese to merit that label. (Anything less must be labeled “imitation cheese.”)

In the 1980s, Kraft famously advertised that each Kraft Singles slice is made from 5 ounces of milk, which is true, but they got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for not mentioning that about 30 percent of the milk’s calcium is lost in processing, making its claims of nutritional superiority over imitation cheese, which often has added calcium, dubious.

According to federal regulations, “pasteurized process cheese food,” as Singles were labeled till about 2002, has the same legal standard and ingredients as “pasteurized process cheese,” but with more moisture and less fat as well as some optional dairy ingredients not permitted in the latter, creating a softer, milder-tasting product. However, after a warning from the Food and Drug Administration about its use of milk protein concentrate — a low-cost derivative of skim milk — an unregulated ingredient not allowed in the “cheese food” standard, Kraft changed Singles’ labels to read “pasteurized prepared cheese product,” a designation not defined by law. (This caused the U.S.D.A. to issue warnings that Singles are no longer “creditable in the Child and Adult Care Food Program.”)

For many Americans growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, though, Kraft Singles were cheese, almost the only cheese they ate. Kraft owned the grilled-cheese sandwich.

The “Singles” part of the product was developed after Kraft’s brother Norman came up with the idea to sell the process cheese in convenient slices. The trouble was that the product was packed while still molten and fluid. After some 15 years of tinkering, he finally developed a machine that quickly cooled the hot, pasteurized product through chilled rollers, creating sheets that could be cut into smooth, uniform, 3-inch squares and stacked.

When Kraft introduced the first pre-sliced process cheese in 1950, the slices became the hottest thing since sliced bread. Consumers loved the convenient, standardized slices so easy to layer in sandwiches and drape on burgers.

Fifteen years later, Kraft would further refine the product, solving the problem of stuck-together slices by encasing each in its own individual plastic wrapper.

Kraft Foods Group, Inc., no longer makes cheese or cheese products in Chicagoland (the nearest plants are in Wisconsin and Champaign, Ill.), but headquarters remains in Northfield.