It’s no secret that Cheez Whiz isn’t cheese. After all, Kraft spells the product name with a Z, and you won’t find cheese on the ingredient list. But, these trivial facts don’t keep Cheez Whiz from being a popular American guilty pleasure or from being the most important ingredient in a true Philly cheesesteak.
Just because this overly-processed, imitation cheese product gets a lot of love, that still doesn’t mean we don’t have questions. The biggest being – what the heck is it?
The Cheez Whiz Origin Story
Even though Cheez Whiz is as American as baseball and apple pie, it was actually created for the British market. But, let’s back up just a little bit. In 1911, Swiss cheese makers developed commercially processed cheese in an effort to make a cheese that would last longer and not spoil quickly.
Walter Gerbe and Fritz Stettler shredded, heated, and stirred their native Emmental cheese – then added sodium citrate – to produce a product that was halfway between cheese and milk. It also had a longer shelf life than traditional cheese.
In 1916, James L. Kraft received the first US patent for processed cheese, with the goal of finding a way for cheese to “be kept indefinitely without spoiling.” His timing couldn’t have been better because the next year, the Army bought six million pounds of Kraft’s processed cheese to feed soldiers during World War I, and this gave Kraft huge profits while making the brand popular with young American men.
Fast forward to the early 1950s, Kraft was the number one cheese brand because of their “singles,” and the company wanted to expand their market to the UK. So, a team at Kraft – led by food scientist Edward Traisman – created Cheez Whiz for British customers to use as a shortcut when making the traditional UK dish, Welsh rarebit.
You make Welsh rarebit by pouring a cheddar cheese sauce over hearty toast. While that might sound easy, the process of making the cheese sauce was actually quite labor-intensive, and it could take more than a half hour.
After a year-and-a-half of work, the Kraft team finally got the flavor right, and they created one of the earliest examples of a popular convenience food. Cheez Whiz was an instant hit in the UK, so the next year, in July 1953, Kraft introduced the product to American consumers.
When Cheez Whiz first hit the market, it contained real cheese, giving it some legitimacy and a good flavor. But at some point, Kraft decided to take the cheese out of Cheez Whiz without mentioning it to the public. Now, Cheez Whiz is made with 27 ingredients, and there is no actual cheese in sight.
A two-tablespoon serving has 80 calories and 450 milligrams of sodium, and the list of ingredients makes it clear why Cheez Whiz has no nutritional value. According to the Kraft website, the ingredients include: Whey, milk, canola oil, maltodextrin, milk protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, contains less than 2 percent of modified food starch, salt, lactic acid, whey protein concentrate, mustard flour, Worcestershire sauce (vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, water, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor), sodium alginate, sorbic acid as a preservative, color added, cheese culture, enzymes, natural flavor.
This concoction of ingredients gives Cheez Whiz its famous bright yellow color and also gives it a long shelf life.
Why Is Cheez Whiz So Popular?
The long list of chemicals in Cheez Whiz doesn’t scare off everyone. Americans are still madly in love with it, and many continue to pour it over French fries and hot dogs, while others use it as a cheese dip. But, the most iconic use of Cheez Whiz is on the classic Philly cheesesteak.
Legendary South Philly shops, Pat’s and Geno’s, have been feuding for decades over their cheesesteaks, and visiting those locations is a must for many politicians. Barack and Michelle Obama enjoyed some Whiz at Pat’s during the 2008 Presidential election, and so did Bill and Chelsea Clinton.
Pat’s invented the Philly steak in the 1930s, but it didn’t originally have cheese. The restaurant eventually introduced cheese when their customers got tired of eating “with or without onions.” American cheese or sharp provolone was the original cheesesteak debate. But, when Kraft introduced Cheez Whiz in the 1950s, it quickly caught on as the favorite option for the sandwich.
Other places eventually started to copy Pat’s, and American and provolone were all but forgotten. Now, Whiz is the overwhelming favorite at Pat’s, outselling American 10 to 1. And, that means they have to have a Whiz warehouse that contains over 2,500 cases of the cheese product, with each case containing six big No. 10 cans.
Cheez Whiz may not be actual cheese, but it is still delicious and is not going anywhere. Pass the broccoli, it needs Cheez Whiz!