What’s really in a packet of processed cheese slices?
Food labels: They have an enduring appeal that is hard fathom for lovers of ‘real’ cheese
Processed Sliced Cheese on White.
No one could accuse Easi-singles of being a gourmet product. But the processed slices have an enduring appeal that is hard fathom for lovers of “real” cheese. Easi-singles have been on the Irish market for decades but there are plenty of similar contenders on supermarket shelves now too.
Kraft dominates the cheesy singles market in the United States, but here it’s Easi-singles. These are made by the Kerry Group, but it’s remarkable how many other processed cheese singles, which appear to be from competing brands, are produced by Kerry too.
The food ingredients behemoth has its headquarters in Tralee, but has manufacturing operations in 32 countries (not counties, countries) and sales of about €6.6 billion a year. It makes Easi-singles, Calvita singles, Galtee singles and own-brand products for Aldi, Lidl and Tesco, among others. They sit side by side on supermarket shelves delivering what may be no more than the illusion of choice.
The first thing to note is that these are not cheese slices, which you can also buy. Those are more expensive and are simply ready-sliced cheese. These are often described as “cheesy slices,” which means that they have some cheese, but also plenty of colours and additives.
To their credit, Easi-singles have a high percentage of real cheese at 60 per cent, as do singles from Calvita, Galtee, Lidl’s Milbona and Aldi’s Emporium. That’s not all that’s in there however. They also have palm oil, which is not from sustainable sources, water, whey powder, modified potato starch, milk proteins, emulsifying salts (E452, E339), calcium phosphate, salt and added colour from beta carotene and paprika extract.
Whey used to be considered a waste product from hard cheese production, but it is now a key source of revenue for ingredients companies owned by operations such as the Kerry Group. It is considered a good source of protein and so is popular with body builders. It pops up in the list of ingredients for a lot of high-protein bars and shakes.
The potato starch is carbohydrate that has been changed physically, chemically, or by using enzymes. There’s no noticeable taste, but it is useful as a thickener or binder. Milk protein is generally casein. The emulsifying salts in the form of phosphates are there to help mix the proteins with the fats, and give a good consistency.
It’s thanks to the addition of calcium phosphate that this trademarked product can say it is a “source of calcium” and that two slices is more than 1/3 of your daily intake. What is not clear is how much is from the cheese and how much is from the added mineral powder.
The biggest surprise comes though when you see the stamp saying this product was made in the UK, though this refers to Northern Ireland where the group has four facilities.
Lidl’s Milbona Cheezy Singles were also made in Northern Ireland, as the product proudly declares on the front. The back of the packet shows this product was made at Kerry Coleraine and it has the same facility number as the Easi-singles. These ingredients appear to be identical, with the difference that Milbona lists the percentage of palm oil (17 per cent) and which emulsifying salts were used, rather than just their numbers.
If there is any difference in taste or consistency, it is due to subtle differences in quantity of ingredients or processing methods
Aldi’s Emporium Cheesy Singles have also come from the same facility and have essentially the same ingredients. This packaging has a little more information. It describes the product as “processed cheese slices made from a blend of cheese, vegetable oil and milk solids”, which sounds a lot less appetizing, though it’s the same as the rest.
It also mentions that it was “produced in Northern Ireland using EU and non-EU milk”. You might expect that Irish brands would use Irish cheese, given that we have plenty of it. If it doesn’t say so on the packet that it uses Irish cheese, then there is no reason to believe it does. Other similar products do not mention where the cheese they use is from.
Another Kerry brand, Galtee has an identical list of ingredients. If there is any difference in taste or consistency, it is due to subtle differences in quantity of ingredients or processing methods.
Calvita, which is from the same stable, has almost identical ingredients. The only difference is that it has added vitamins A and D3, thus living up to its name which is a mash-up of “calcium” and “vitamins”.
Even Creamfields, a Tesco brand, has almost identical ingredients. The biggest difference here is that its first ingredient is reconstituted whey powder and it has just 11 per cent cheese. So it’s not a great option.
Dominating the market by appearing to offer a choice is good for business, but it doesn’t do much for the consumer.