Last week, as the rising tide that is the Super Bowl lifted all nacho related news into the media forefront, a little article came out in Bloomberg Business with the clickbaitable title of "There's No Such Thing as Nacho Cheese". Spoiler Alert: That is a complete falsehood. If you want to call it something more accurate you could title it "There No Such Thing (As a Standard or Legal Definition of) Nacho Cheese", which isn't nearly as popping, and also not really news.
The argument of the article boils down to "There isn't a standard or legal definition of Nacho Cheese, CRAZY RIGHT!?!?" But no, it's not really that crazy.
You know what has a standardized recipe? Coca-Cola, and it's probably guarded by super ninjas willing to kill and fight to their deaths to protect it. Do you know who owns Coca-Cola? The Coca-Cola Company, a multibillion dollar business. Do you know what would happen if they didn’t have a standardized recipe? People getting it expecting the same smooth taste every time would be horribly disappointed, and the word “Coke” wouldn’t be the second most recognizable word on planet Earth. Do you know what doesn’t have a standard recipe though? Cola.
Now, nobody owns the darkish kind of soda beverage known as "Cola" that Coca-Cola, Pepsi, RC Cola, Tab, and Count Cola all fall into the family of. "Cola" is a flavor of soda, an idea of a soda if you will, but you know that when you get it somewhere you’re going to be receiving a sweet, blackish/brown beverage that’s pretty close to Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Tab, or Count Cola. Guess what? The United States Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a definition of the flavor Cola either, but somehow everyone magically knows what it’ll taste like. It’s the same thing with nachos.
The US FDA has definitions for more than 70 different cheeses, which seems like a lot, however the International Dairy Federation defines more than 500, and food scientists W. E. Sandine and P. R. Elliker more than 1000. While the FDA doesn’t list Nacho Cheese as such it does mention Pasteurized Process Cheese, which does sum it up rather nicely. Described under U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (Food and Drugs), Section 133 (Cheeses and Cheese Related Products) as being made from single or blended cheese, solid or powdered, it contains cream, milkfat, salt, water, oils, artificial color, and, in the case of a proper Nacho Cheese, spices as well. Its definitions include:
Pasteurized process cheese, which is made from one or more cheeses (excluding certain cheeses such as cream cheese and cottage cheese but including American cheese), and which may contain one or more specified "optional ingredients" (includes both dairy and nondairy items). Moisture not more than 41%; fat in the solids, not less than 49%.
Pasteurized process cheese food, which is made from not less than 51% by final weight of one or more "optional cheese ingredients" (similar to the cheeses available for Pasteurized process cheese), mixed with one or more "optional dairy ingredients" (milk, whey, etc.), and which may contain one or more specified "optional ingredients" (nondairy). Moisture must be <44%, and fat content >23%.
Pasteurized process cheese spread, which is made similarly to pasteurized process cheese food but must be spreadable at 70° F. Moisture must be between 44% and 60%, and fat content >20%.
Granted, I’m no cheese scientist, but I think you could use one of those to make some pretty gnarly Nacho Cheese. Gnarly as in not radical, because Nacho Cheese is gross.
Since Nacho Cheese is sold in stores it is safe to assume that somehow the FDA gave it their blessings, even without making a very special definition just for it. Perhaps if they wanted to taxonomically breakdown their cheese definitions more than they already have Nacho Cheese would find a home outside of the umbrella of processed cheese, but we seem to be doing pretty well without it. If you ordered something with the adjective of “Nacho Cheese” and didn’t get something yellow/orange in color, cheesy flavored, and a little bit spicy, you would be highly surprised, even without a legal definition. Without an official definition you could still order nachos at a football game and not be surprised when a strange orange goo showed up on it and gets the job of cheese done, much the same way that my nose still gets blown when I use a nasal tissue rather than a “Kleenex”, or my paper still gets copied when I use a machine that’s not a “Xerox”. There is something that exists here, and you can eat it on nachos, although you should use real cheese instead.
If some company was to make the Coca-Cola “Gold Standard” of Nacho Cheese and needed the FDA to bless it with an official legal definition, maybe then people would be happy and consider it a “real thing”. Philosophy students could probably debate the semantics of whether Nacho Cheese does or doesn't exist, but they're probably busy blowing each other's minds with whether the color one sees as blue is the same color that another sees as blue. Get out of your heads nerds, spend less time thinking about that and more time writing about nacho cheese like this cool dude. So what, there's not a standardization for Nacho Cheese, but there's not a standardization for nachos either. Somehow I'm still able to eat the idea of nachos, and they're the most delicious idea you can eat.