The Mystery Behind Orange Cheddar Cheese in America

A Slice of Americana: Why Orange Cheddar Will Always Have a Special Place in Our Hearts (and Stomachs)

In America, cheddar cheese is orange due to annatto, a natural food coloring from the achiote tree seeds, added to achieve a consistent color year-round. This tradition mimics the natural hue from cows’ milk high in beta-carotene from spring grass, historically signifying quality. The use of annatto ensures uniformity across production, without altering taste or texture.

Can a Cow’s Diet Turn Cheddar Cheese Orange?

Indeed, the coloration of cheddar cheese originates from what cows eat. The history of cheddar cheese dates back to the 12th century in the village of Cheddar in England.

By the 17th century, even cheddar cheese produced in England exhibited an orange hue. This is attributed to the cows’ diet of fresh spring grass.

Spring grass is rich in beta-carotene, which imparts an orange tint to the milk produced by the cows.

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RankCheeseInteresting Fact
1️⃣Cheddar😮 Cheddar can be aged up to 10 years for an intense flavor!
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Beta-carotene is a natural pigment responsible for the color of carrots. In the winter, cows primarily consume hay, which leads to a significant decrease in beta-carotene levels.

As a result, cheddar cheese produced during this time is more likely to be white or yellow. Therefore, the color of cheddar cheese can vary between orange and yellow depending on the season.

Interestingly, by the 17th century in England, the orange hue of cheddar cheese was associated with higher quality.

You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese – Anthony Bourdain

Cheese producers soon began adding color to make cheddar cheese appear more orange. They typically achieved this by incorporating ingredients like saffron, carrot juice, or marigold.

Does Food Coloring Make Cheddar Cheese Orange?

Cheddar cheese had typically always been a farm-made product.

However, when people came over from England to the land that would eventually be known as America, they brought cheddar with them.

Furthermore, they also introduced cheddar-making to the U.S.

All cheese continued to be made on a farm up until 1851 when the Williams family developed the first cheddar factory.

With that being said, America’s main cheddar production is now located in both Wisconsin and Vermont.

Dessert without cheese is like a beauty with only one eye – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The Wisconsin cheddar has typically always been known to be creamier and sweeter when compared to the bitter and sharp taste of Vermont.

However, cheesemakers wanted the color to remain uniform all year round.

To achieve this, the food coloring and condiment, annatto, was added to cheddar cheese.

Annatto comes from the seeds of the achiote tree but can also be found in paprika.

The practice of using annatto to color cheddar orange has remained and is still used today.

Annatto won’t affect the flavor or texture of cheddar but simply disguises the color of the cheese.

This was an easy way to ensure that all cheddar cheese produced in America looked the same.

How Cheddar Cheese is Made in a Factory – The Process

Final Thoughts

  • Cheddar cheese in America is always orange because food coloring, specifically annatto, is added to keep the color uniform all year round.
  • The color of cheddar cheese initially comes down to a cow’s diet, which can produce either orange or yellow cheese depending on the time of year and what the cow is eating.
  • Cheddar cheese production in America started with cheddar-making brought over from England, and cheesemakers wanted the color to remain uniform all year round, leading to the use of annatto.
  • The orange color of cheddar cheese became a marker for quality even during the original manufacture of cheddar cheese in the UK.
  • Annatto won’t affect the flavor or texture of cheddar but simply disguises the color of the cheese.

So, as you can see, cheddar cheese is orange in America due to the addition of the food coloring annatto.

With that being said, cheddar cheese can differ in color depending on a cow’s diet.

During the spring months, fresh grass contains beta-carotene, which produces an orange pigment in cow’s milk.

However, when cows eat hay in the winter months, beta-carotene is dramatically reduced.

And it is this that produces a whiter or yellow cheese.

Give me a good sharp knife and a good sharp cheese and I’m a happy man – George R.R. Martin

But, even during the original manufacture of cheddar cheese in the UK, it was felt that orange cheddar was a marker for higher quality.

As for cheddar production in America, manufacturers wanted to keep the color uniform all year round, hence the use of annatto.

Talking of the color of cheese, I have written an interesting article on why there is sometimes a white coating on Cheddar.

How do you think the tradition of adding color to cheddar cheese, specifically through the use of annatto, reflects cultural preferences?

Let us know in the comments below!

1 thought on “The Mystery Behind Orange Cheddar Cheese in America”

  1. Hi Partha,
    Interesting read on why the colour change with cheese it wasn’t until you mentioned Annatto that I looked it up and found it is such a widespread colouring agents use in not only cheese but also butter, and margarine.
    I know it is used for other foods never thought it would be used to change the colour of cheese along with butter and margarine as stated.
    Thank you for that


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