If you take a look at just about any “natural” cheese, or important European cheese, there’s one thing missing: the bright orange color so often associated with both American cheddar and American processed cheese product. You never see yellow or orange goat, feta, mozzarella, Brie, or Camembert, and you certainly don’t find orange milk in nature. So what’s the deal with the orange cheddar?

What Makes Cheddar Cheese Orange?

In more recent years, White Cheddar has grown in popularity, from boxed mac & cheese to soups and more. It is commonly believed that white cheddar is a sharper, more flavorful cheese, even though orange cheddar can be ranked from Mild to Extra Sharp. It turns out that the biggest difference between the two cheeses (domestically) is a colorant. In many highly processed cheeses (American, Cheese Whiz, Kraft, Boxed Macaroni & Cheese), bright colors come from artificial dyes. However, the flavorless Annatto seed is a totally natural product with a very bright orange hue, and it is traditionally used to color a variety of cheeses.

But Why Is Cheddar Cheese Orange?

Historically speaking, there were many cheeses with a sort of yellowish color. Somewhere between the shade of pastured butter’s yellow and a pastured hen’s egg yolk. This comes from directly from the food eaten by the animal – primarily the beta-carotene in the grass they are supposed to eat.

Sometime during the 17th century, farmers realized they could skim off some of the cream when making cheese, and use it to make butter. The cheese was obviously less vibrant in color, since the cream contained the majority of the beta-carotene, and also somewhat less flavorful. The cheese-makers started dying their low-fat cheeses with things like saffron, annatto seed, and even carrot juice.

The coloring of cheddar cheeses also helped create uniformity, and eliminate color changes during the seasons when cows didn’t have a lot of fresh green grass to eat.

So, there you have it! In an effort to make more money in the 17th century, dairy farmers created this expectation of bright orange cheese. In many parts of the world, especially throughout New England, the trend never caught on, which is why you’ve known many white cheddars from Vermont. Many places are kicking the colorants to the curb and going back to white, letting nature decide.

Is Orange Cheddar Healthy?

It’s no longer a mark of “watered down” cheese, but it can be a sign of artificial dyes. Before you pick up that familiar block of orange cheddar cheese, flip it over and check for natural coloring agents, like annatto seed, instead of artificial dyes!

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