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Is it impossible to get cheeseburger made with real cheese in India?

The cheeseburger is one of America’s greatest gastronomic achievements.

It has a relatively simple filling: a patty made from minced beef and a slice of processed cheese. It is a dish that has been taken around the world by such chains as McDonald’s.


We recognise that it is impossible to make an American-style (is there any other kind?) cheeseburger in India. Even before the current campaign against beef started, McDonald’s had decided not to use beef in India out of respect for Hindu sentiments.


   But is it also impossible to get a non-beef cheeseburger made with real cheese in India? Over the last week, as the Maharashtra government’s regulators have acted against McDonald’s for allegedly passing off cheeseless cheese substitutes as the real thing, the suspicion has grown that even the cheese in the Indian version of the cheeseburger is not really cheese at all.


   As the news of the action against McDonald’s hit the media, the company moved to assert its cheesy credentials. “Myth Busted” it declared on its Instagram handle. “The cheese slice in your favourite burger is milk-based real cheese.” Further, it added: “We use only real, quality cheese in all our products containing cheese.”


   This was good news for McDonald’s fans. But some people worried about a curious construction in the post: “in all our products containing cheese”. What is a product “containing cheese”? Well, a cheeseburger, certainly.


   But what about McDonald’s “Cheese Fries”?


   According to industry gossip, in common with other fast food chains, the cheese flavour in those fries came from cheese that was not 100 per cent dairy. That was what the fuss was about.


   McDonald’s made no mention of this dish in its “myth-busting” post so it is hard to be sure. Certainly, the Maharashtra FDA had little doubt that all the cheese flavours at McDonald’s were not 100 per cent dairy.


   I imagine that the state FDA might have had even more luck if they had started on pizza places. Many of them use real mozzarella. But not everyone does. It is not unusual to see non-dairy cheese used in some cheaper pizzas. (That’s how they can keep them cheap. Cheese is the most expensive ingredient in a pizza. Stop using the real thing and the cost drops drastically.)


   If your head is reeling from all this cheesiness, then a few simple distinctions may help.


   Real cheese is made from milk: from cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep etc. It can be an artisanal product and is much prized. Unfortunately we don’t see much of it in India.


   Processed cheese is what most of us think of as cheese. This is a 20th Century American product invented by a man called Kraft who gave his name to the brand that produces the world’s most famous processed cheese. Americans liked processed cheese because a) it had a longer shelf-life, b) it was easier to melt c) it could be cut into pieces for fast food dishes and sandwiches and d) it was bland.


   Kraft processed cheese swept the world in the 1950s and was popular in India. It was replaced in Indian affections by Amul which is now the dominant brand in India, much loved by street vendors though strangely enough not necessarily by the fast food industry (which may well have something to do with this controversy).


"Many, if not most, five star hotel bakeries still use synthetic non-dairy cream not only because it is cheaper but also because it lasts longer and is easier to handle."

   Europeans are sniffy about processed cheese and even in the US, processed cheese is less popular with the younger generation which wants real cheese. The food writer and TV personality Padma Lakshmi writes in her memoir about Amul cheese, calling it a “processed cheese-like product…..with all the quality of Laughing Cow wedges left out too long without the wrapper.” (Lakshmi only calls Amul “cheese”, with inverted commas: Laughing Cow is a cheap, Swiss cheese popular with children and processed so that it lasts longer unrefrigerated.)


   Whatever your views on processed cheese, it is usually made from dairy milk. But there are cheese substitutes that have never ever been near a bottle of milk. They are usually made from vegetable fat, (what the Maharashtra FDA calls “Dalda” in its comments on McDonald’s). Sometimes to confuse the public, a tiny amount of real cheese is mixed with the vegetable fat so that they can list ‘cheese’ among the ingredients.


   There are many levels of bogus (or non-dairy, if you want to get technical about it) cheese including the phoney “mozzarella” that turns up on cheap pizzas.


   Then there are cheese sauces. You can get sauces made from processed cheese (Amul makes one) but you can also get fake ones made with say, sunflower oil with a little cheese powder thrown in.  These are often artificially flavoured and are around one third the price of sauces made with real processed cheese.


   There is also analogue cheese, a completely fake cheese which can be sliced for cheeseburgers but as far as I know, there isn’t a huge price advantage so it has not really caught on in India — as yet.


   In many countries, they have strict regulations about what you can call cheese. In America for instance, Kraft has been forced to call its inexpensive Velveeta a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.” Till 2002, Kraft sold it as a “pasteurised processed cheese spread.” The US FDA stopped Kraft from pretending it was cheese. In India, however, many so-called cheese spreads that would not be allowed to be described as “cheese” in the West can get away with that labelling.


   Should all this disturb us? Well, yes and no. And it depends on who you ask.


   Chefs and cheese purists are horrified. The chef Suvir Saran says that fake “cheese with aspirational nomenclature is chemical laced, bereft of goodness and comes with assured problems for one’s health.”


   Others make the more limited point that we should have regulations that force manufacturers to be more transparent in their labeling and a lot of the stuff sold as cheese should be relabelled.


   On the other hand, why focus only on cheese? Many, if not most, five star hotel bakeries still use synthetic non-dairy cream not only because it is cheaper but also because it lasts longer and is easier to handle. Nobody forces the hotels to declare whether they are using real cream or not. And they are happy to describe congealed vegetable fat as ‘cream.’


   Even so-called “farm paneer” can legitimately be sold in shops though it is totally non-dairy and not really paneer. No regulator seems to object even if it has a totally misleading picture of a cow on the packet. And as for ice-cream, much of the stuff made by multinationals in India is made from vegetable fat and not milk.


   That is one side of the story. Then, there is the food industry’s position. It argues that no Indian consumer ever objects to a non-dairy cheese sauce on grounds of taste because frankly, we can’t tell the difference. Nothing about the fake cheese is unhealthy: no trans fats are used. You could even argue that vegetable fat is healthier than the dairy fat in real cheese because it is less likely to contribute to heart disease. If a product that costs less and does no harm is likely to benefit a consumer who might not otherwise be able to afford a pizza, then why get so agitated about it?


   I am not a man who eats much processed (Amul/Kraft type) cheese let alone fake cheese so I have no strong views on the subject. But I do believe that it is important to tell the truth. If the cream used in an expensive patisserie is not really cream then consumers have a right to know. And if the cheese fries don’t really have much cheese in them, then yes, you are lying to your customers.



Posted On: 01 Mar 2024 11:40 AM
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