Few things in this world should be taken for granted, including a particular fluorescent orange food called nacho cheese. Here's the truth: There’s no such thing.
This story begins months ago, while I was reporting the launch of Old El Paso’s new nacho cheese-flavored taco shells. These shells, the marketers bragged to me, have a “big, bold cheese taste,” which naturally led me to ask them to describe how it tasted—a topic they doggedly deflected: “We don’t get too much into detail about that because it is such a competitive category,” said the company's spokesman.
Um, seriously? It's a cheese-blasted taco shell. And thus began an absurd, long-winded, and utterly unresolved discussion about what nacho cheese actually is.
Nachos are a fairly modern concept in America. According to a 2002 story in the San Antonio Express-News, they were invented by a man named Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya (thus the name) in 1943 in Mexico. The cheese he used: “Wisconsin cheese, the round one,” the story goes. It was melted on the tortillas and topped with jalapeños. So the original nacho cheese, by this account, was cheddar.
But this is where the cheddar consensus ends.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines more than 70 cheeses for labeling purposes but has no definition of nacho cheese. Cheddar cheese, for example, has to have a minimum milkfat content of 50 percent by weight and a maximum moisture content of 39 percent, while blue cheese has to be at least 60 days old. Even brick cheese is recognized as a cheese. Since the agency has no definition of nacho cheese, it can technically be any cheese that isn’t already another kind of cheese. Or something.
There's also no breakdown on sales of nacho cheese. IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, tracks such categories as "dairy sauce/cheese sauce" (sales of which were roughly $357 million in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 30) and "aerosol/squeezable cheese spreads." Nielsen tracks categories such as "entertaining cheese" and "cheese sauce mix." That doesn't mean it's not popular. Nacho cheese is the bestselling Doritos flavor, and Kroger stocks about 150 products in its supermarkets that contain the phrase "nacho cheese," from cheese dipping sauces, to chips, to crackers, to Bugles.
I went to Mike Siemienas, spokesman for General Mills (which owns Old El Paso) and these alleged "nacho cheese"-blasted taco shells. “I mean, the team MUST have some way to describe nacho cheese,” I implored. He said that Old El Paso looked at some combination of “light/dark, flavor strength, saltiness, moistness, color, amount, heat/spiciness, texture, crispness, crunchiness.” Ultimately, Siemienas said, “It really is based on what consumers are used to and what they believe nacho cheese flavor is.”
Wait. So, nacho cheese is just whatever we believe it is? Are you kidding me? Besides bringing up deeper, noncheese-related existential issues, this left me wondering—do people expect nacho cheese to have any particular flavor? Or color? Or texture? Or is it just any cheese that happens to be on nacho chips?
The cheese industry itself didn't have much to add to the debate. "There really is not a Nacho Cheese per se," says Sara Hill, manager of cheese education and training at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "There might be some jarred cheese blends on the market that say 'nacho cheese,' but again, these are blends that are meant to heat up and dip chips into."
A spokeswoman at the International Dairy Foods Association, Peggy Armstrong, asked a nutrition and labeling expert on my behalf and came back with this response: "There is no definition or standard for nacho cheese. She says it is not a type of cheese and that she's never seen a 'typical' nacho cheese; each company that makes a nacho cheese product has a different recipe."
Finally, I took my question to PepsiCo, the maker of Doritos. Perhaps the snack food industry had come to an informal agreement about how to treat it. “The flavor Nacho cheese is made with cheddar and Romano cheeses,” said spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez. Just look at the ingredients list on a bag of nacho cheese Doritos. But “I've never heard of a specific definition,” she said. Old El Paso uses cheddar and blue cheeses. Pringles uses cheddar, romano, and parmesan.
Disappointed yet? Some fantasies are hard to give up. What nacho cheese is may continue to elude us, but as Jeopardy's Alex Trebek will tell you, all of life's great answers come in the form of a question.