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Stop Setting Your Cheese on Fire

Videos purporting to demonstrate the evil stuff in processed cheese have started making the rounds online. Problem is, they don't prove anything except how little we know about our food.

The human brain is not always as smart as it likes to think it is.

Far too many people assume that because a given food contains ingredients that they don't immediately understand or have the wherewithal to correctly pronounce, it must be dangerous or, at the very least, unpleasant. Sometimes this is true—take the grape-flavored medicinal aroma of the Grapple, for instance—while many times it's a simple lack of understanding of the building blocks of food.

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The irony, of course, is that amateur attempts to decipher what goes into our food are often clouded by misinformation. Fearmongers like Vani Hari, better known as the Food Babe, are keen on spreading this kind of misinformation: bogusly claiming that microwaves imbue food with ever-vague "toxins" and confusing scary-sounding beer ingredients like propylene glycol with chemically distinct propylene glycol alginate. (Both of which, by the way, are roundly considered safe.) These people are the anti-vaxxers of the food world.

Alas, common sense is not always sensible. Consider this video that began circulating in December, purporting to demonstrate the "unnaturalness" of a processed cheese slice by placing it directly over the flame of a lighter.

Terrifyingly, the slice doesn't melt! What kind of god-awful, third-nipple-growing nuclear waste could our cartoonishly evil food scientists be putting in our cheese?

In solidarity, others began posting their videos of their apparently unmeltable cheese, which merely turns black.

Indeed, processed cheese is not the all-natural stuff matured in the fetid caves of the Swiss Alps. (That is, if you consider "real" cheese natural at all: It's the congealed mammary secretions of ruminants, most often produced by adding enzymes derived from animal stomachs and various strains of bacteria.)

The magic component of processed cheese is emulsifying salt—either one of a group of phosphate salts or sodium citrate, which is derived from citric acid (the same stuff in that give lemons and limes their tang). In a probably too-simplified nutshell, emulsifying salts help to bind fats, proteins, and water in cheese, which allow it to melt into a Velveeta-smooth substance without separating into oil and seized milk proteins. (As a bonus, phosphate salts help to protect cheese from the bacteria that causes botulism.)

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Basically, processed cheese is not some kind of Satanic alchemy—in fact, it's pretty old-school science. As Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking, fondue follows the exact same principle, utilizing the tartaric acid and citric acid naturally present in wine and lemon juice to keep the melted cheese sauce from breaking.

But back to that burning cheese. If emulsifying salts make cheese melt more smoothly, shouldn't those individually wrapped slices turn to gooey goodness at the mere whiff of an open flame? Not really! Cheese—processed or not—should be melted at far lower temperatures than those produced by naked fire. Would a marshmallow still turn into sticky, glue-y s'more filling if it were held over a flamethrower? Nope—you'd have a blackened puck of char instead.

Kraft food scientists even took to YouTube last month to explain this themselves—but perhaps not convincingly enough for anyone who raises the red flag at the mention of "emulsifiers."

But we get it: damn The Cheese Man, right? If you still want to avoid those assembly line slices but demand the silky smoothness of American cheese, make your own bomb processed cheese at home out of easily available sodium citrate and a wedge of your favorite congealed nipple juice. It ain't that hard, people.

Just don't try to set it on fire—save that for your 151 shots.