Top view of cheddar cheese slices,
The Fascinating History Behind Why Some Cheese Has That Bright Orange Color
By Christina Garcia
The way cheddar, or pretty much any cheese with bright orange or yellow tones, gets its color is no secret, as cheesemakers put it there on purpose. Annatto, made from the seeds of achiote, also known as Bixa Orellana or the lipstick tree, is the colorant in many fermented dairy products, and the reason for this has everything to do with consumer psychology.
Color can specifically transform customer preference from negative to positive in cheese, and English cheesemakers in the 17th century knew this. Before this, cheese color correlated to animals’ diets, with cheese from goat's milk being white due to its acidity, and cheese made from cow's milk carrying the beta-carotene from the grass they fed on.
Seasonality was also a major factor, as milk likely contained less yellow and orange tones in areas where the grass was not as abundant throughout the year. Meanwhile, cheese made using milk from the spring and summer had a more vivid tint thanks to lusher, sun-nourished grass.
Buyers saw cheese made with pigmented milk as a sign of value and quality, so cheesemakers dyed their cheese utilizing a number of different methods to keep it aligned with buyer expectations and keep their prices up. The next time you reach for your favorite fiery-toned sharp cheddar, imagine it in a more natural state and ask yourself if 17th-century cheesemongers were right all along.