A Colorful Question: Why Do We Assume Cheese Should Be Orange?


Color plays a powerful role in how people perceive things. You see the color red and you think stop or proceed with caution. Beef becomes much more appetizing when colored pink with butcher’s dye than when left to turn a natural grey. The clear blue skies of summer and spring can help to elevate a person’s mood, while the constant cloudy grey of winter brings on depression due to seasonal affective disorder.

People have become so conditioned to associate color with certain feelings that they rarely notice the emotions they bring on until they see something colored in an unusual way. Now a recent decision by Kraft Foods may test just how big a role color plays in what we eat, and reminds us of the curious history behind one of the color relationships that people have long taken for granted – cheese should be orange.

In an effort to improve the quality and nutritional value of some of their brands, Kraft announced recently that it would remove two artificial dyes from select versions of the company’s macaroni and cheese products. In addition to causing quite a few confused looks on the faces of children surprised to find their bowls of mac and cheese a color other than neon orange, Kraft’s decision also brings up the interesting notion of why people assume that certain types of cheese should be orange to being with.

A Colorful History

So color should cheese really be then? If you stop and ponder the notion for a moment, you might say that cheese should carry a whitish hue instead of orange- similar to the color of milk. However, many natural cheeses hundreds of years ago in England had a natural orangish-yellow hue. These types of cheeses cam from certain types of milk cows, such as the Guernsey and Jersey cows whose milk tends to carry more beta-carotene and a brighter color. So historically, when a cheese carried an orangish hue, it was thought of higher quality.

If left here, the story of a cheese’s natural color wouldn’t be terribly interesting. Fortunately, it takes a strange twist.

During the 17th century, cheesemakers throughout England began to realize that they could make a higher profit by skimming the cream from the cow’s milk and sell it separately for butter making. However, removing the fatty cream where most of the natural pigment was stored would rob the cheese made from the milk of its orangish color.

Not willing to lose out on much needed profit, cheesemakers began to sell off the cheese – now basically a low-fat cheese made from white milk – using dyes as the same high-quality product as before. By adding artificial colors from substances such as carrot juice, marigold, saffron, and annatto- a tropical plant seed – cheesemakers were able to pass their products off to the unsuspecting consumers in London.

This tradition of coloring cheese carried over to the new world, as cheesemakers in New York, Wisconsin, and Indiana have a long history of adding artificial coloring to their cheddar cheese. In addition to making consumers happy, the practice of coloring cheese also allowed cheesemakers to achieve a uniform color in all of their products.

When made naturally, cheese may have a slightly different hue depending on the cow and concentration of the milk used. But by adding coloring, cheesemakers could ensure that every block looked identical to the one before it, and the idea that cheese should appear orange became part of everyday consciousness.

However, the practice of coloring cheeses didn’t catch on everywhere. Dairy farmers in New England were firmly against the practice of coloring cheese, which is why consumers see a lot of naturally white cheddar cheese in states such as Vermont.

A Healthier Snack

With the growth of artisanal food movements across the country, many smaller cheesemakers have already started producing cheese made from grass fed cows. Market experts of the dairy industry expect consumers will begin to see more cheese butterlike in color hitting the shelves during the summer months as cow once again begin to pasture in the coming years.

No longer relying on the use of artificial dyes and coloring can only make an already health food source even better for the body. In recent years, a number of studies have found that eating a few ounces of cheese a day can help individuals lose weight, improve their oral health, and even potentially reduce their risk of cancer.

John Nickelbottom is a freealnce health and science writer.

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