Unless you’re from England or a hardcore cheese-fan, when you think of the cheddar cheese, most likely, the color of it will be yellowish or orange. A week ago, I saw a post with a white cheddar and I immediately, and quite arrogantly, thought to myself “oh, they even whitewash cheddar these days”. But it made me think about something I never thought before.
Did you ever ask yourself why some cheeses are white while some are yellow or orange? Like, milk is white and so is yogurt. So how come butter becomes yellow? Seeing a white cheddar cheese made me question everything I knew, along with realizing how much I actually don’t know about the colors of cheeses.
So, I asked the all-mighty Google, how does the color of cheese is determined. And it gave me the answers through the following 3 books.
- The science of cheese – Michael H. Tunick
- Cheese: a global history – Andrew Dalby
- Grass-fed cattle: how to produce and market natural beef – Julius Ruechel
Why are some cheese white and some yellow/orange?
The simple answer to that is because of a compound hidden in the grass which is called beta-carotene. This is what gives some of the orange vegetables like carrots and squashes their color. “Cows transfer carotenoids (β -carotene and related compounds) from their diet to the milk, where they bind to the fat.” explains Michael H. Tunick in his book, The Science of Cheese.
So, when the cows have a grass-based diet, the beta-carotene is unleashed in the fat of the milk and therefore in the butter and cheese. That’s why most butter and some cheese types are yellow and it’s completely natural. It’s important to mention that this natural phenomenon only happens with cows but not with goats, sheep or buffalos. Even among the types of cows it differs. While Jersey and Guernsey cows can transfer the beta-carotene much more effectively to their fat, other varieties can’t.
This is why the original cheddar cheese had a yellowish color to it. But around 17th century that started to change due to the raising prices in milk. Cheesemakers started to separate the cream from the milk to produce butter which resulted the end product of the cheddar to lack the fat and color due to this.
But it wasn’t long until the customers caught up with the trick. The color orange became the quality indication for cheddar cheese. White cheese meant low fat, therefore bad quality. To overcome this problem, cheesemakers started adding dyes to their cheese to make them orange so they were able to keep their profits. When cheesemakers started to migrate to America with their know-how, this trick traveled with them.
In America cheddar kept on being produced the same way until the 19th century when the industrialization of the cheese begun. With the production switching from farmhouses to factories, the coloring of cheddar became more important to standardize the product.
Milk was coming from different types of cows from different places. On top of that, more and more cows were given a hay and grain-based diet as it was cheaper in production. Neither hay nor grains have beta-carotene, so cows started to lack that color naturally in their milk and fat.
With the cows’ diet changing to a hay or grain-based diet, it wasn’t possible for the producers to compete with the rest of the products in the market. The coloring of the cheese started as a trick to cover up bad quality cheese but became an industry standard during the 20th century in America. Today the most commonly used colorant is annatto (achiote) which is a heavily used ingredient in the Mexican cuisine. It’s even used in some of the Al Pastor type Döner Kebabs to give its bright red color in the marination of adobo.
With its new makeover, cheddar went to conquer the world. Today, it’s a fairly standard product when you think about the color. It’s a yellowish orange like how it was 400 years ago. With a few moderations of course. The color is an important aspect of food. Even today, when people are given the exact same cheddar cheese with different shades, most people say that they prefer the taste of the orange one. Even though the tastes are the same, the color does change our perception and therefore our experience we get from the flavors.
Cheddar is not a usual cheese in the sense of the worldwide success it receives. It’s the go-to cheese for cheeseburger and you can find it in almost any major supermarket in the world, in some form and that is partly thanks to its rich history and partly to the industrialization of it. Once the most prized English cheese by Daniel Defoe for its taste, now the favorite of millions of people for its affordability. Once, a cheese that would be sold before it was made, now a dip sauce for chips. I guess that shows that the demand for cheddar is the only thing that didn’t change in the last 400 years.
Thanks to this research hole I fell in, I learned so much more about not just cheddar but cheese in general. What started as a short Instagram post became this article and even though I couldn’t find a place for them, I’d like to share some other things I learned thanks to this research:
- The yellow fat in the beef is not something to be afraid of, in fact it shows that the cow had a grass-based diet.
- Cheddar is a village in England and I should go visit the Gorge caves one day to see how they’re aging the cheddar cheese there, the old way.
- Colors of the products might not always tell the truth.
- Beta-carotene is rich with Vitamin A so a naturally yellow cheese probably is going to help me have a better eye sight.
- Since around 10 years, mozzarella is sold more than cheddar, which might mean pizza is getting more famous than cheeseburger.