Stupid Question ™
Jan. 13, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: Why is cheddar cheese dyed yellow in the US?
—Camille P. and Sang S.
A: There are three main commercial reasons for coloring food: 1) to fraudulently make food look fresher than it is; 2) to cover up a harmless natural but undesirable alteration in color; 3) to give a product a “normal” color consumers can recognize.
In the case of cheddar cheese, which is usually dyed anything from pastel yellow to bright orange, all three reasons apply.
Normal cheddar cheese is a pale yellowish-white. Grass contains the pigment beta-carotene; when cows eat the grass, the pigment goes into their fat, and thus into their milk. When cheese is made from the milk, the beta-carotene is concentrated and results in this color.
The color varies seasonally, since cows get more beta-carotene out of lush summer grass. Also, the color tends to deepen as the cheese ages, so a mature, summer-milk cheddar could have more of a golden hue.
Back in the 1600s, dairy farmers were more inclined to skim the cream off milk and turn it into butter, which was easier to make and sell than cheese. If they then made cheese with the skimmed milk, its very pale color would be a tip-off to low fat content (and thus low flavor).
So many farmers simply mixed saffron, marigold petals or carrot juice into their cheese—the resulting yellow-red color making it look richer, fatter and more mature than it was.
By 1900, the artificial coloring was sometimes dangerous, with mercury- or lead-based pigments being used. They were outlawed, and everybody started using annatto, a tropical plant that is still used by cheesemakers today.
Besides outright fraud, coloring was also used to cover up the natural seasonal variations in cheese color. That’s even more important today, when studies have shown consumers prefer uniformly-colored produce, believing it to be fresher. (Butter gets colored, too.)
Eventually, consumers not only got used to all cheddar being yellowish-orange, they expected it to be.
And that’s the main reason cheddar is dyed yellow-orange today. If it were any other color, consumers might not recognize it on the shelf, or might not want it if they did recognize it. (Similarly, around 1900 British milk was often colored yellow to cover both low quality and seasonal variations; consumers soon stopped buying even high-quality milk if it wasn’t dyed yellow.)
Nonetheless, the exact expected color of cheese varies regionally, sometimes for no obvious reason. (The Southern US supposedly prefers the brightest orange cheddar.) The British accept natural-color cheddar, seasonal variations and all, probably because there’s been a movement to preserve the traditional cheese farms around good ol’ Cheddar, England.
However, they have their own traditionally neon-orange cheeses, such as Gloucester and Leicester, which have been dosed with annatto for centuries.