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The Cheddar is to Dye For

From the flavored dust on your Cheetos to the oozing sauce on your nachos, “cheese” apparently only comes in one color: orange. Although we know that cheeses can taste delicious in almost any color, the stereotype for what our favorite food looks like is often portrayed as being little more than a vibrant orange wedge, fit for a mouse king. But if cheese is made of milk and milk is white, where does the shockingly bright color come from? In spite of the fact that many processed cheese products are toxic orange, the story behind orange cheese is actually more natural than you might think.

Cheddar is perhaps the most iconic tangerine-tinted cheese. With a history that dates back to the 12th century, this champion among cheeses originated in the small village of Cheddar in Somerset, England. During the warmer seasons, native Jersey and Guernsey cows grazed on the beta-carotene rich grasses, which produced a naturally yellow-orange pigmented milk. The result was a noticeably off-white cheese, which became the mark of its superior quality.

However, 17th century cheesemakers realized that there was more money to be made by skimming off the layer of cream from the milk and using it in butter production. The lack of the fatty cream, which carried the milk’s distinctive orange color, created a white, low-fat cheese. Because cheddar was known by its color more so than its flavor, farmers added coloring from saffron, marigold, and carrot juice to dye their cheddar orange. Paul Kindstedt, a cheese expert from the University of Vermont, explains in an NPR interview, “The cheesemakers were initially trying to trick people to mask the white color [of their cheese]”. The result, however, was a trend towards coloring cheese in order to make it look like it had a particular flavor.

Soon, the orange coloring of choice came from an additive called annatto. Derived from the seeds of the Latin American achiote tree, annatto itself has a very mild flavor when processed, making it the ideal dying agent. Annatto is still used today as a colorant and is considered to be an all natural product. Many processed cheese products are known to use chemically-based coloring agents, although in recent years some companies have been trying to clean up their bad manufacturing habits by moving away from dyes like Yellow No. 5.

While continuing to use a dye to color our cheese is historically deceptive, annatto is not considered to be a harmful additive and therefore should not deter shoppers from buying a product in which annatto is used. Does it matter to you if your cheese is white or orange?

Photo Credit: sargento.com

Emily Dangler

Culture Intern Emily Dangler is a creative writer and travel enthusiast, who is always looking for a good story to tell. Originally a West Coast girl, Emily has spent several years migrating across the country and is currently an adopted resident of Boston, where she is enjoying the city's delicious food and rich history.