Why is some cheese orange?
Milk is white, so why is some cheese orange? The truth is, cheddar cheese does not “turn” orange — it is dyed. In its natural state, cheddar cheese is a white or yellowish colour.
Cows eat grass, and grass contains beta carotene (which naturally makes the cheese more orange). The more grass a cow eats, the more beta carotene ends up in the milk it produces, and therefore the more orange the cheese. Orange-ish cheese was also associated with being more flavorful (and therefore better). In the Fall and Winter, cows eat little or no grass. With less beta carotene in their milk, the cheese product ends up being less colourful.
Cheese producers remedied this inconsistency by adding seeds from the annatto (also known as Achiote) tree, grown in the tropical regions of Central and South America. When the tree flowers, it produces spiky looking pods, which contain annatto seeds and a vibrant red pulp. After the pods are ground, they are turned into an extract or a powder, used for colouring foods. Annatto has no flavour in small amounts, like when colouring foods.
The logic is that if cheddar cheese is orange all year round, then consumers won’t be able to discriminate it based on season. Manufacturers decided to standardize product year-round by making every batch of cheese the same colour. The colour that became the standard was an even more vibrant tone of that yellow shade, believing that they could somehow convey a high level of quality with a colour that conveyed such positive attributes.
Today, cheeses like Double Gloucester, Shropshire Blue, and Mimolette remain orange because of tradition. In fact, we can’t think of one cheese that’s new on the cheese scene using annatto. Maybe it’s because now, orange cheese generally has bad associations because it’s linked to American cheese singles and mass produced block cheddar. Pretty ironic, considering the reasons why annatto made its way into cheese in the first place.
The recent backlash against orange cheddar cheese has brought natural white and pale yellow cheddar cheese back into demand. Stop by any health food store, co-op, or even the artisan cheese section of your large brick & mortar chain grocery and you will find plenty of natural, non-coloured cheddar cheese.