RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The recent announcement that food giants Kraft and Heinz will merge got us thinking about snack food like Cheese Whiz. Either you have fond memories of spreading it on crackers at parties or you turn your nose up at the very thought of processed cheese in a jar. Either way, the story behind Cheese Whiz says a lot about American food history, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: For better or worse, Cheese Whiz whizzed its way into American popular culture - from "The Blues Brothers" movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLUES BROTHERS")
SHOTGUN BRITTON: (As Shotgun Britton) Did you get me my Cheese Whiz, boy?
BLAIR: To rocker Beck's hit song "Loser."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSER")
BECK: (Singing) I'm a loser baby so why don't you kill me. Get crazy with the Cheese Whiz.
BLAIR: Get crazy with the Cheese Whiz he sings. The Kraft spread is part of another American food tradition, the Philly cheese steak.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD NETWORK)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Just lightly on each side with the Cheese Whiz. The Whiz is my favorite
BLAIR: Kraft first introduced Cheese Whiz in the early 1950s.
(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFT COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There's more to enjoying a jar of Kraft's Cheese Whiz than putting it on your favorite crackers. Of course, this amazing pasteurized, processed cheese spread makes wonderful snacks and appetizers fast.
BLAIR: Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Moss says his mom used to make a special treat with the cheese dip in a jar.
MICHAEL MOSS: Cheese Whiz on celery sticks.
BLAIR: Moss is the author of "Salt Sugar Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us," a best-selling book on the food industry. A retired Kraft Food scientist, who was part of the team that invented Cheese Whiz, told him that they were trying to replicate Welsh Rarebit.
MOSS: Which was kind of like a fondue sauce that people would put on toast. That goes back to, I think, the 18th century. You know, cheddar cheese melted, delicious on a toast. But, you know, it took some time to cook.
BLAIR: So with a concoction of, among other things, different cheeses, emulsifiers, salts, artificial coloring - voila - Cheese Whiz.
MOSS: It was relished as a marvel of science, of innovation, you know. It was the modernizing, post-World War II America where industry was going to help us build leisure time and allow us to do other things, you know, other than sleeve in the kitchen.
(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFT COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Cheese Whiz processed cheese spread, the marvelous, microwave-in-a-minute cheese sauce.
BLAIR: But with changing attitudes about food and health, profits from Cheese Whiz and other Kraft products have fallen. Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway and the Brazilian firm 3G Capital are behind the merger behind Kraft and Heinz. They're partly counting on overseas markets to boost profits. A 3G executive said they plan to expand the reach of Kraft's brands to consumers across the globe. Could work, says Fred Opie, a professor of history and food traditions at Babson College.
FRED OPIE: As their economy improves and people want to become more kind of first nation consumers of food, unfortunately that often means eating American junk food.
BLAIR: Unfortunately, says Opie, because American's love of processed foods like Cheese Whiz has led to big health problems in the United States.
OPIE: Once you start consuming that American diet, you start having the same health concerns that we also have here in the United States, which is the onset of early set of diabetes among our youth and obesity.
BLAIR: Cheese Whiz might not survive the merger between Kraft and Heinz, says Michael Moss, as part of the cost-cutting that goes along with the merger. Moss believes everything will be on the table and not necessarily as a snack. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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