Nacho cheese brings me back to school lunchroom days, baseball stadiums, and movie theaters. Its distinctively salty smell can turn heads from miles away. The gelatinous texture is somewhat comforting, especially when paired with an off-brand tortilla chip. But what actually makes up its appealing aroma and funky feel? Here's what you should know about common nacho cheese ingredients. 

A Brief History of Nachos


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Nachos have a quite simple origin. In 1943, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya created a small plate of food for his restaurant guests. Located right over the Texas border in Piedras Negras, Mexico, the restaurant used the little food they had left to feed guests who showed up after closing. Anaya whipped up a plate of whatever he had left. He laid down chips, topped each with cheddar cheese and jalapeños and popped it in the oven to melt the cheese.

You hear that? Cheddar —The OG nacho cheese.

Eventually, nachos morphed into a staple "Mexican" food. Because it was created close to Texas, many Tex-Mex restaurants claimed them as their own. Nachos became super popular after they started being sold at Arlington Stadium in Texas. People continued to pile them higher and higher with more and more ingredients, eventually yielding the tailgate and party treat we know today. A typical dish contains the original chips, cheese, and jalapeños, as well as a meat, salsa, sour cream, pico de gallo, olives, lettuce, and guac.

Nacho Cheese Ingredients


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Though the OG cheese on nachos was actual cheese, "nacho cheese" was produced by Frank Liberto (the man who started selling nachos at Arlington Stadium). Real cheese had a short shelf life, so he created a nacho cheese from real cheese and "secret ingredients" that didn't require heating to enjoy.

The FDA has no regulations for nacho cheese. Unlike typical products, it has no definitive composition. Companies can make "nacho cheese" however they please. The International Dairy Foods Association even stated, “It can technically be any cheese that isn’t already another kind of cheese.” Good to know companies can basically put anything in a jar for unsuspecting nacho eaters to consume.

The San Antonio company Ricos Products is the first known company to manufacture this liquid gold on a larger scale. Many companies have since hopped on the bandwagon, with big named brands mass-producing nacho cheese. Many foods are even flavored with "nacho cheese" (hello, Doritos). Of course, this flavor is all up to the discretion of the brand. 

The CEO of General Mills told a First We Feast reporter that the flavor of nacho cheese is based on what consumers "believe nacho cheese flavor to be." If you want it to be nacho cheese, then it can very well be nacho cheese. 

Of course, companies with this vague definition often make a yellow-colored liquid that can be stored at room temperature for literal years. Because it's labeled with the word "cheese," it must contain dairy. Thanks to the air-tight packaging, companies can extend the shelf-life for years. Nacho cheese ingredients vary from product to product, but most start off with cheese whey, various spices, oils, and coloring to create the cheese we all know and love.

There you have it. The mystery of nacho cheese is solved (kind of).