Why Is American Cheese Falling Out of Fashion?

It's not a bad thing that we want to eat healthier, but it means some formerly popular foods, like American cheese slices, have declined in popularity. (Photo: Binh Thanh Bui/Shutterstock)

I attended a wine panel discussion recently in New York City, and during a break I had a conversation with the woman sitting two seats down. We were talking about how traditionally lauded wines from regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and even Napa aren't what people are clamoring for anymore.

I mentioned that when I talk to winemakers and tasting room employees, I'm told that when millennials come in, they ask, "What do you have that's different?" They are more than willing to try new things.

The woman I was talking to was close to my age — squarely planted in Generation X — but in between us sat a younger woman, a millennial. I felt the need to both apologize to her and to let her know I think it's great that younger wine drinkers are helping to diversify for wine world.

Why did I feel I had to do that? Millennials are constantly being blamed for "killing" dozens of products. Last year, Mashable published a list of 70 things the generation has "killed" including beer, cars, sex and stilettos. Of course all of those things still exist, but millennials don't buy them at the same rate as previous generations, or perhaps they buy them in different forms.

You can add one more item to that list: American cheese, the slices of what are technically a "cheese product" because although they contain cheese, they aren't true cheese. They are "made by comminuting (that means reducing it into minute particles) and mixing cheese ingredients, dairy ingredients, and optional other ingredients such as emulsifying agents, acidifying agents, water, salt, 'harmless' artificial coloring, spices and other flavorings."

Don't blame millennials

grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup
All Americans, not just millennials, are looking for more variety than yellow processed cheese in a grilled cheese sandwich. (Photo: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

If you look in my refrigerator right now, you won't find American cheese. It's not that I never buy it, but I buy a lot less than I used to. When I do buy it, the dog ends up eating more than my family does. Why? I love cheese, but I prefer natural cheese and a variety of flavors. My boys have learned that mozzarella and provolone make for a delicious, melty grilled cheese sandwich.

Neither of my sons are millennials; my 19-year-old may be at the very tail end of the generation (the birth years marking the generation seem to be fluid depending on who's writing about it), and we're not big American cheese eaters. Yet, the decline in American cheese sales — both the kind sliced to order at the deli counter and the individual wrapped slices like Kraft Singles — is being blamed on millennials, according to Bloomberg.

The evidence includes four straight years of decline in brands like Kraft Singles and Velveeta; the price of cheddar, which is used as one of the ingredients for American cheese products, has gone down; and prices for processed American cheese have dipped below $4 per pound for the first time since 2011.

And as sales go down, someone must be blamed, right? It can't just be that over time, most things — even foods — go out of fashion. Americans as a whole are turning to healthier foods made with natural ingredients. The Bloomberg article notes that the number of cheese factories is actually increasing in the United States, up 40 percent between 2010 and 2017, but most of that growth is from small producers of specialty, real cheese, not processed American cheese products.

The push for healthier food

Why do Americans want better cheese, and better food overall? We want it because we've read Michael Pollan's (not a millennial) "The Omnivore's Dilemma," we've listened to Alice Waters' (not a millennial) advice to eat local, and to former first lady Michelle Obama (also not a millennial) when she planted a garden and encouraged us all to eat vegetables. For the past couple of decades, America has been talking about local, organic, healthy vegetables and fruits, about sustainable and pasture raised meat — and everyone is listening.

It just so happens that the millennial generation is the generation that's spending the most money, as boomers are retiring on fixed incomes and Generation X's smaller population never did or will have the spending power of the generation before and after it. So when sales of something begin to decline, it's the millennials who get blamed, even if all generations are making similar purchasing choices. And, really, why is it framed as a negative thing when people are trying to eat better food?

Things change; it's natural. Millennials didn't get together in a secret meeting and decide to kill American cheese any more than my generation tried to kill the station wagon or vinyl records — which by the way have come back again. Speaking of coming back, Bloomberg says some trendy restaurants are offering foods with processed American cheese as "retro" dishes, and the new trendy Chicago burger joint, Mini Mott, only offers American cheese as a cheese on its burgers. So maybe the imminent death of American cheese via millennial isn't as imminent as reported.