What is Cream Cheese?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Cream cheese refers to the soft, spreadable white cheese that is consumed fresh. Versions of this cheese were made in France as far back as the 1650s, but in 1880, a well-known New York cheese manufacturer, A.L. Reynolds, began to distribute the cheese in the familiar foil wrapping. It was packaged under the label "Philadelphia Cream Cheese," which continues to be one of the most easily recognized brands. He used Philadelphia in the name not because it was created there, but because in that era, associating a food with the city suggested a higher quality. In some countries, this cheese is simply called Philadelphia to differentiate from other “cream” cheeses like triple cream brie.

Omelets can feature cream cheese.
Omelets can feature cream cheese.

Cream cheese is made from a combination of cream and milk, and is not matured or hardened, as are other cheeses. Instead, it is slightly firmed by the introduction of lactic acid. Less expensive brands often add stabilizers like guar gum to get the necessary firmness, because the high fat content of the milk products is prone to separating. Some feel that using stabilizers is cheating and they will only eat products made the “old-fashioned” way. Cream cheeses made without stabilizers may be more crumbly than spreadable, and it has a relatively short shelf life, even when kept refrigerated.

Cream cheese frosting is commonly used on red velvet cake.
Cream cheese frosting is commonly used on red velvet cake.

Bagels topped with cream cheese, called schmear in Yiddish, are of course a classic use of this food. Flavored versions are also popular, especially when served with bagels. Philadelphia Brand offers herbed, strawberry, pineapple, and onion flavored cream cheese in tubs. Whipped versions do spread easier, but it usually does include stabilizers and is sometimes sold under the name Neufchatel, which does not at all resemble European Neufchatel cheese. Low fat versions may also be called Neufchatel because they depend upon stabilizers.

Cream cheese is made from cream and milk.
Cream cheese is made from cream and milk.

There are many different recipes that incorporate this cheese. This includes cheese cake, frosting, dips and spreads, and omelets. It can also be used in alternating layers with pesto and sundried tomatoes, or as the bottom layer for raspberry Jell-O.

Lox is commonly served on a bagel with cream cheese.
Lox is commonly served on a bagel with cream cheese.

In spite of being cheese, cream cheese has a fairly low protein content as compared to hard cheeses. A one-ounce (28 g) serving only has 1 gram of protein. Traditional cream cheese can also be quite high in saturated fat, containing as much as 40% fat. It fortunately contains no trans fats, so it does have its redeeming qualities. Philadelphia has been effective in marketing its product as better than butter, because it is lower in fat than butter.

Bagels from the deli are often toasted and then spread with a schmear of cream cheese.
Bagels from the deli are often toasted and then spread with a schmear of cream cheese.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Regular cream cheese in USA is only 33 percent cheese. The rest is gum and whey.


Philadelphia Cream Cheese, as it is sold in Sweden,

definitely contains substantial amounts of trans fat (2.1 g per 100 g serving)!

The WHO says a maximum of 1 percent of energy intake should be transfats.

This translates to 2.2 g of transfats per day for average person with a 2000 Kcal intake. About 1 g per 100 g is the natural content of hard cheese (cream cheese is processed and contains extra water), as a comparison.

The old recommendation from WHO was a maximum of approximately 2 grams per 100 grams in food (to ensure 1 percent intake on average. The new would be 1 gram, approximately, so this might be the reason for not declaring this is processed cheese as in Philadelphia Cream Cheese.


Is cream cheese still usable if not refrigerated for 24 hours?


Why do sparks fly when I put cream cheese in the microwave? Yes, I take the aluminum foil off.


Does cream cheese really go bad by the expiration date on the label?


what does cream cheese do for a recipe?


Interesting fact - I read that one of the ingredients in cream cheese is also used to make fake alien saliva - so weird.


Don't freeze cream cheese. it can be refrigerated only.


Can cream cheese be frozen before use?


Thanks for the info on cream cheese. I always wondered and now I know!


What is the cause of the yellowing and synthesis of a processed cream cheese?

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