Cream Cheese: Cream, Cheese, or Neither?

The prospect of living without my favourite layered nacho dip or the occasional drive-through bagel makes me hesitant to start penning this post. The truth is, cream cheese is one of those foods I’d rather stay ignorant about that give up. And if I find out cream cheese isn’t cream or cheese at all, I’ll be forced to live without some of my favourite (and most convenient) snacks.

Obviously, the tacky bright white paste that we call “cream cheese” raises some red flags. If it didn’t, I would be happily wrapping it up in eggplant slices and swirling it into my soup five times a week. But here are a few of the reasons I want to look at it more closely:

cream cheese on bagel

  • It’s just so…white
  • It doesn’t contain much calcium, like cheese does
  • It comes in flavours labelled “creme” instead of “cream”, which reeks of a clever attempt to circumvent labelling rules

Let’s take a closer look at the label of the most famous cream cheese brand, Philadelphia:


cream cheese back label close-up

(Canadian) ingredients: Milk ingredients, salt, bacterial culture, carob bean gum, sorbic acid. Contains: Milk (oh thank goodness).

Milk ingredients, we meet again.

In a previous post about modified milk ingredients, I said I thought milk ingredients were “okay” because they seemed to be minimally processed parts of milk. Here’s the official definition again, if you’re interested:

“butter, buttermilk, butter oil, milk fat, cream, milk, partly skimmed milk, skim milk and any other component of milk the chemical composition of which has not been altered and that exists in the food in the same chemical state in which it is found in milk”
(Reference: Food and Drug Regulations section B.01.010 item 7)

Not being altered sounds good, but re-reading the above definition has made me change my mind. The reason is because of transparency – I mean, shouldn’t companies have to list exactly what’s in their products? Which is it – buttermilk, or milk fat? Cream (yeah!), or skim milk (not so yeah!)? These differences matter to me, and I want to know what I’m eating. Plus, what the heck is “butter oil”?

“Milk ingredients” are a smokescreen. You don’t really know what you’re getting, except that it’s definitely not regular, whole milk. Milk ingredients are definitely not something you’d keep in your fridge at home.

Which milk ingredients are used also makes a difference to the nutritional value of the food. Hard cheeses (and soft cheeses, like Brie, to a lesser extent) contain calcium as their main nutritional selling feature. Cream cheese contains a measly 2% of your daily requirement for calcium per tablespoon. So, if you’re like me and mow down on say, three or four tablespoons, it’s still only maximum 8% of your daily requirement, or 80 mg. Contrast that with one serving of cheddar cheese at 30% or 300 mg per serving, and it’s clear cream cheese is a condiment, not part of a food group.

hard cheese

Back to the ingredient list: after milk ingredients, we have salt (ok), bacterial culture (necessary to make cheese), carob bean gum (a thickener) and sorbic acid (a preservative).

The Centre for Science in the Public Interest – a reputable non-profit research organization – says sorbic acid is safe. But with new research coming out all the time about previously unknown effects of food additives (emulsifiers have recently been linked to inflammation of the digestive system), I firmly believe we shouldn’t be using any preservative if we don’t need to.

Carob bean gum is a thickener, also used in food products like soy milk. Seeing it on a label indicates a processed food, or as Health Canada puts it, an additive that achieves “a particular technical effect.” So without it, we wouldn’t have the beloved brick-shaped package or silky-smooth texture.

So cream cheese contains questionable milk ingredients, a thickener, and a preservative. It’s clear it’s a processed food. Though not the worst offender I’ve seen in the dairy category, I’m going to start my hunt for a good alternative and stop putting it on my plate.

References and further reading:



  1. Kraft is more like Crap food for me. I buy the organic cream cheese from grass fed cows and irs not white all. Its has a yellowish tone. One of the brands I buy is Arla Organic Cream Cheese Spread. Ingredients are: Pasteurized organic milk and cream, salt, bacterial culture. That’s all.

    • Eli this Arla brand looks good to me! Where do you buy it? I haven’t seen alternatives like this in my local stores. Even the organic brands have a long ingredient list here.

      • Hi Jill, I live in Vaughan and I buy it at Natures Emporium or Fortino’s and even the Superstore has it too! You should try it!


  1. […] cheese seems to be made differently in the US versus Canada (see Canadian food labels in this previous post) but I do enjoy the disclaimer that sorbic acid isn’t present in regular cream cheese (though […]

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