Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why is cheddar cheese orange?

Lining up for cheese at Tillamook last fall.

Why is cheddar cheese orange?

I was thinking about this as I got white cheddar cheese out of our fridge and my son asked what kind it was.  

Go ahead - think about it.  Cheddar cheese is orange.  But milk is not, butter is not ... why is it orange?

Answer:  It's dyed orange with the annatto seed.

The annatto tree is a tropical tree, and its dried, ground seed is used to color cheese, margarine, microwave popcorn, and other yellow or orange food.  For instance, it's one of the ingredients Kraft is now using to color its new macaroni and cheese.

It's nothing new.  Tropical Plant tells me, "Throughout the rain forest, indigenous tribes have used annatto seeds as body paint and as a fabric dye. It has been traced back to the ancient Mayan Indians, who employed it as a principal coloring agent in foods, for body paints, and as a coloring for arts, crafts, and murals."

Never heard of it?  Me neither!  But there's a history to it, of course.

Milk components depend on a variety of factors, including the breed of cow and her diet.  If a cow is eating pasture, many of the plants in it are rich in beta-carotene, which gives the milk a more golden color.  During the winter, when there isn't pasture available and the cow is eating hay, her milk is whiter.

Since annatto seeds have been used to color cheese for over 200 years, the internet offers many reasons why cheddar became orange.

- To give cheese a consistent color, no matter the time of year
- To make people think the cheese was richer
- To differentiate it from other kinds of cheese
- To be more like the cheesemakers in Cheddar, Somerset, England

You can now buy cheddar cheese in a variety of colors, as long as you want white, light orange, or dark orange.  But when you reach for the orange cheese knowing it's cheddar, you can thank the annatto seed.

When my boys ask me questions I don't know the answers to, like 'What does the Tooth Fairy do with all those teeth?"  and "What do leprechauns like to eat?" they're surprised I don't know the answer and always say, "Just look on your phone!"

Sometimes it works.  Enjoy your whatever-colored cheese today!

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