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?
That’s right, the color of cheddar cheese initially comes down to a cow’s diet.
Cheddar cheese can cast its origins back to the 12th century in a small village called Cheddar, England, UK.
However, fast-forward to the 17th century, and even the English cheddar cheese produced was orange in color.
This comes down to the fresh grass in the spring months, which was the mainstay of a cow’s diet.
Grass in the spring is typically high in beta-carotene, which would produce an orange pigment in cow’s milk.
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Beta-carotene is a natural pigment and the same one that gives carrots their color.
However, during the winter months, cows would feed on hay, which meant the levels of beta-carotene were significantly reduced.
This, of course, would mean more white/yellow cheddar cheese.
So, in effect, cheddar cheese could be orange or yellow, depending on the time of year.
With that being said, even back in 17th century England, the orange color of cheddar cheese became a marker for quality.
So, it wasn’t long before cheese producers decided to add pigment to create a more orange-looking cheddar.
This was generally done through the addition of 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.
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
- 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.
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!