It would appear that something revolutionary has happened to Kraft Singles. This year, some of the cheesy, terror alert-yellow squares have ditched artificial preservatives and added natural ones. Or at least that's what Kraft's telling us in its new marketing campaign, Know Your Singles.
"Now with no artificial preservatives, but lots of love," the site reads.
"Always made with milk and no artificial flavors."
"A few simple ingredients that turn cheddar into Kraft Singles."
"Look for new Kraft Singles now with a natural preservative that keeps them fresh."
"Our story begins on a farm."
And so on. But what, exactly, is natural about Kraft Singles? What changed in the recipe?
In February, Kraft announced that it would be releasing a line of Kraft Singles with no artificial preservatives. A subsequent report from the Chicago Tribune clarified that the company would be switching a preservative called sorbic acid in the ingredient list to natamycin, a mold inhibitor. Kraft also added something else: A "proprietary unnamed ingredient for food safety."
Sorbic acid is a naturally occurring compound, originally produced from the rowan tree. But it's also produced synthetically from a reaction among various chemicals. Natamycin does the same job, but it's an anti-fungal agent that comes about from the fermentation process of certain soil bacteria. While sorbic acid is commonly used in wines and juices, food processors add natamycin to cheese rinds and sausage casings to combat mold. Doctors also use the stuff to treat specific types of eye infections.
"That’s why they would put [natamycin] in. Because it would be called 'natural,'" speculates Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at the Consumers Union, the public policy arm of Consumer Reports.
But what about the other new additive, the "proprietary unknown ingredient?"
Kraft spokesperson Jody Moore said that because the ingredient was proprietary she would be unable to provide any additional information, but touted its ability to make a new, purer version of Kraft Singles:
"We developed a proprietary process which allows us to remove artificial preservatives while still maintaining the same product quality that fans of Kraft Singles expect," Moore wrote in an email. "We’re proud to deliver the same great tasting American cheese we always have—made with real cheese, milk, and no artificial flavors—but now with no artificial preservatives."
If you drill down into Kraft's claims, it's clear the company is doing some very careful word wrangling to make sure it doesn't assert the whole Singles product is "natural." As some food and beverage companies have already discovered, using that descriptor could get you sued. While Kraft may have removed all artificial preservatives, the "unnamed proprietary ingredient" could still be artificial, too.
"That proprietary unknown ingredient is obviously something that’s synthetic," Hansen says. "If this were something commonly known to nature, you couldn’t patent it. If it’s an unnamed ingredient, it’s no doubt a chemical. And you can apply it to cheese."
Then again, Kraft is careful not to identify the Singles as actual cheese. Or food, for that matter.
"Our advice to people is to buy cheese, which this is not," explains Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.
Lovera explains that in order for a food to qualify as cheese, it has to maintain a "standard of identity" determined by the Food and Drug Administration. "So if you're buying Swiss cheese or cheddar or American, there are certain criteria you have to make," she says. "When you get down to Kraft or Velveeta, they're working outside the standards of identity."
Kraft Singles do have some real cheese on their ingredient list. But that list also includes whey, milk, milk protein concentrate, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate, less than 2% of calcium phosphate, salt, lactic acid, annatto and paprika extract (color), natamycin, enzymes, cheese culture, and vitamin D3.
Milk protein concentrate (MPC), one of the items on the Kraft Singles ingredient list, has proven itself a controversial substance in the past. But MPC's are not synthetic ingredients; the white-ish powder consists of many different milk proteins that arrive as dairy processing byproducts.
"Basically, [MPC] comes from making cheese and all sorts of other milk, and it’s really valuable protein," explains University of California-Davis food science professor David Mills. "We really hate to throw them away. And thankfully people have figured out uses for them."
But the controversy over MPC's deals with where that powder comes from. Often, MPC's are imported from New Zealand. China and Mexico also export significant amounts of an MPC component to the U.S. After showing that MPC imports were undercutting New York dairy farmers by tens of millions of dollars a year, in 2009, New York Senator Chuck Schumer proposed federal legislation to impose a tariff on the stuff. The legislation died in committee.
"There's been some reports that some are being made domestically, but it's likely being imported," says Food and Water Watch's Lovera. "We think it's just a way to find a cheaper source of dairy and undercut domestic dairy farmers. We also have to struggle more with safety; you're putting a lot of trust in a government you have no ability to impact."
In 2002, Kraft's use of MPC's also motivated the FDA to send a warning letter to the company, arguing that Kraft's then-marketing of Singles as "pasteurized process cheese food" didn't conform to the FDA's standard of identity for "pasteurized process cheese food." But that was easy enough to get around. Now, if you look at how Kraft defines Singles, they're described as "pasteurized prepared cheese product."
Kraft, to be clear, does not claim that the Singles are natural. Instead, it refers to natamycin, the anti-fungal, as a natural preservative. But just about anything can qualify as natural. The FDA "has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives." At the same time, the agency has not "objected" to the use of the word if the product leaves out artificial flavors, colors, and synthetics, according to its website.
"They get to call it whatever they want," says Lovera. "We just tell people it's a meaningless label."
Still, some companies are finding that the "natural" claim, while nice for marketing purposes, is far more trouble than its worth. Over the last two years, at least 100 false advertising lawsuits have been filed because of the term, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some of those lawsuits, WSJ notes, have ended in multi-million dollar settlements.
But even if Kraft is careful about its wording, Hansen, the Consumers Union scientist, cautions against buying into the spirit of Kraft's wholesome, farm-fresh campaign.
"As people get more and more interested in the labels that are on foods, more of these sort of artificial food products—they’re trying to make them look healthier or more natural," he says. "But this is really more trying to put lipstick on a pig."