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Why Are Some Cheeses Orange?

The sky is blue. American cheese is dyed orange. Two facts of life. But why isn’t cheese white since it comes from milk?

Centuries ago in England, lots of cheeses had a natural yellowish-orange pigment. The cheese came from the milk of certain breeds of cows, such as Jersey and Guernsey. Their milk tended to be richer in color from beta-carotene in the grass they eat. So, when the orange pigment transferred to the cow’s milk, and then to the cheese, it was considered a mark of quality. Source.

Farmers of the era figured out that it was more profitable to skim the fatty orange on top as cream or to turn it into butter. This had the effect of removing the color from the milk and gave rise to “coloring from saffron, marigold, carrot juice and later, annatto” to mask the natural whiteness. It was a 17th century bait-and-switch, the tradition of which carried over to some American cheesemakers. Another benefit of coloring was providing a way to both stick out and to achieve uniform color.These days there is a backlash in some circles against colored cheeses. Many are opting to keeping the natural color like those that were sold in pre-17th century England. Kraft for example announced that they will no longer user artificial dyes in favor of an annatto based one.

Since I buy cheese maybe once a month I don’t have a strong opinion on the use of dyes though natural is always preferable. Some of my favorite cheese are Swiss, gruyere, manchego, emmenthaler, cheddar and good old American.Does color help you to make a decision when buying cheese? What are some of your favorite cheeses?


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