In A Nutshell
In its natural form, most cheese is sort of a white color. It’s nothing like the bright orange we see today, and that’s not a new thing. High-quality grazing lands, cows, and milk once made high-quality cheese that was yellow-orange, but when cheesemakers started taking the beta-carotene-rich cream to make butter with, they lost the color that had been a mark of high quality. They started adding all sorts of dyes to make up for it. That was in the 17th century, and we’ve been including the food dyes and additives ever since.
The Whole Bushel
Take a look at the majority of mass-produced cheese in many grocery stores today, and you’ll likely be struck by one thought: nothing natural could ever be that color. We’re fussy about our foods, and whether it’s a slab of weird rubber cheese or a slathering of nacho cheese, it’s pretty unnatural-looking if you bother to pay attention.
That’s nothing new. We’ve been doing weird things to the color of our cheese for centuries.
It all started with high-class cheese. When the best cheese was made in pre-17th-century England, it came from Guernsey and Jersey cows that were native to a particular area in England. For around 500 years, all the best cheese came out of the village of Cheddar in Somerset. (Yes, really.) And that kind of fame means that their product sets the standard.
The grasses that Somerset cows grazed on was known for its high beta-carotene content, which was passed on to the cows’ milk. That gives the final product a sort of mildly yellowish-orange color. That’s how you knew your cheese was the good stuff.
By the time the 1800s hit, cheesemakers were learning how to stretch their raw materials a little farther. If they took off the cream, they could use it to make butter.
That also took away the color that people had become so used to. The cream is where the color is.
Cheese became white, and people don’t like those kinds of sudden changes in their favorite foods. So in the 17th century, cheesemakers started something that’s continued today.
They started adding things like marigold, carrot juice, and saffron to their cheese in order to keep it the same color. Finally, they settled on a food dye called annatto, which was taken from the seeds of the achiote plant.
It has a long history, and it’s a South American native that was even used by the Mayans to change the color of their food.
It’s claimed to have some health benefits, too, like lowering blood pressure, but it’s also been claimed that it can cause some major digestive issues and aggravate irritable bowel syndrome.
Annatto showed up most noticeably in Leicestershire cheese, and it’s still one of the most distinctively colored cheeses, bright red because of the annatto.
People took their cheese seriously in England, and as early as the 1750s there were standards that cheesemakers were held to. These standards weren’t just locked away in some government office to be read only by the upper class or the literate, either.
They were spread by word of mouth and by official town criers who made sure everyone knew about the standards required and the punishments that would be handed out to anyone who sold low-quality cheese.