The Secret History of Cheese Coloring


Yesterday, I posted this picture of a Cheddar that had been air-drying for several days (on the right) and another Cheddar (left) that was fresh out of the press.
Here is the fresh-out-of-the-press cheese today (left). The color is starting to come on.
The Cheddar on the right has now been vacuum sealed and is ready for aging.

Both cheeses have been colored, but the color deepens as the cheese sits, gradually turning the cheese orange. The coloring comes from liquid annatto, a natural colorant that is derived from the seeds of annatto plants. But why do we color cheese anyway? And why do we color only certain cheeses? I did some research and uncovered the underhanded backstory behind Cheddar’s bright orange face.

All cheese is naturally a sort of buttery off-white, of course. (How white or how buttery-colored depends on the cream content in the milk used to make the cheese.) This is a Gouda.
Most cheeses that are colored orange come from the “Cheddar family” of cheeses. These are low-temperature cheeses that originated in England and include cheeses such as Cheddar, Derby, Leicester, and Colby–the last of which is a Wisconsin-born child of Cheddar. All of these cheeses are typically colored. (Excepting Derby. And when you see a “White Cheddar” in the store, it’s just a Cheddar that hasn’t been colored. That’s it, whole difference.)

When I hold workshops and we make butter, I always start out by asking people if they know that not all butter is yellow. Sometimes their eyes grow big, as if I just turned their world upside down. Then I say, summer butter is yellow, and winter butter is white, why is that? Rarely can anyone answer that question correctly. The answer is because summer butter comes from pasture-fed cows and winter butter comes from hay-fed cows. Grass is rich in colorful beta carotene, which is an antioxidant. The beta carotene in hay is lessened due to the drying and storage process. The resulting hay-fed milk is more white, specifically the cream. The pigment in the beta carotene is carried by the fat in the cream. Thus, summer butter is yellow and winter butter is more white. And because summer butter is healthier and richer due to the beta carotene, whether people know why or not, yellow butter is considered the best butter. So, winter butter is colored to look like summer butter, which explains why all you find in the grocery store is yellow butter.

I wasn’t really changing the subject, by the way! It’s the same with cheese. Hard cheeses today are generally made with milk that has had the cream skimmed. But even if you left the milk full-fat, unskimmed, because it’s mixed with milk, the cheese is still going to be an off-white or slightly yellowish buttery color. (I often make hard cheeses with full-fat unskimmed milk.) No cheese is ever going to be naturally orange the way we know Cheddar cheese to be. That’s above and beyond what is natural no matter how creamy the milk is from which the cheese was made. But, sometimes people go a little over the top in marketing–which is how it all began….

Turns out, back in 17th century England, cheesemakers started skimming their milk to sell the cream and butter separately–to make more money, of course. Then they made their cheeses from the skimmed milk. Without the fatty cream and its hitchhiking beta carotene, their cheeses were suddenly much more white. Not slightly buttery yellow as they had been previously when they were including the cream in their cheesemaking process. People didn’t like that. Imagine customers in Kroger today staring at the Land O’ Lakes (if they suddenly and without explanation stopped coloring the butter), exclaiming, “Why is this butter white?! What’s wrong with it?” Same thing. Customers to Elizabethan era cheesemakers were crying, “Why is this cheese so white?! What’s wrong with it?”

The cheesemakers didn’t want to admit they’d taken the cream out.

And so the scheme, I mean the coloring of cheese, began–using extracts from marigolds, saffron, carrots, and eventually annatto, which began to be imported to England in the 17th century.

Cheese buyers loved it! Their cheese looked right again! They understood, whether by instinct or actual knowledge, that color in cheese meant it was more rich. And they were willing to pay more for high quality cheese. The more color, the “richer” the cheese! The cheesemakers said, “Pass the annatto, boys, we can double the price!” Eventually they were coloring their cheeses to the point that they were orange, and smacking their annatto-stained hands together all the way to the bank.

And so we ended up with colorful orange Cheddar cheeses, and this is why most cheeses that are colored have their origins in England.
Cheese coloring–one of history’s great rackets!

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on September 15, 2015  

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5 Responses | RSS feed for comments on this post

  1. 9-16

    Great post! One question I have is, why do you vacuum seal the cheese to age it? I’ve always thought that part of the aging process with cheddar is evaporation, which condenses the flavor and hardens the cheese.

  2. 9-16

    I knew about butter color and was interested to learn that Kerrygold, the Irish butter company, does not make butter when the cows are on winter feed. Of course, luckily for them, the Irish climate permits longer pasturing of the cows. All that wonderful green countryside.

  3. 9-17

    Debbie, cheese is air dried for several days before it’s waxed (or vacuum sealed) to dry the cheese and allow it to start developing its natural rind. It’s waxed or sealed to prevent contamination, the development of mold, and to aid in developing flavor as it ages.

  4. 9-22

    Everyday something new, it’s true!!
    Thank you Suzanne for the cheese lesson, can’t wait to impart this info to my kids. :) I’ve never bought white cheddar because I thought it was “completely’ different from yellow cheddar, now I know better. Happy Tuesday to all!!

  5. 9-23

    Interesting, although i think dyed cheese is much less common in the UK in my experience, than in the US. I know of Leicester and Double Gloucester as orange cheese but far less often is “cheddar’ dyed. Here in Australia orange cheese is even less common and is limited to a small handful of artisanal types like Rubicon Red.

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