Milk is white, so why is some cheese orange? What is the culprit responsible for this color change in cheese and why would some cheesemakers choose to rob their cheese of its natural tint in the first place? (It's not as devious as it sounds.)
Cheese can be colored with a coloring agent called annatto. It's a natural food coloring that comes from the Annatto (also known as Achiote) tree, grown in the tropical regions of Central and South America. When the tree flowers, it produces spiky looking pods, which house annatto seeds and a vibrant red pulp. After the pods are ground, they're then turned into an extract or a powder, used for coloring foods and, where it's grown, for lipstick and body paint. Annatto has no flavor in small amounts, like when coloring foods.
Dying cheese orange originated in England many years ago, when the color of cheese fluctuated throughout the year with a cow's diet and the subsequent variations in beta-carotene and fat content of her milk. In the winter, when cows ate hay or silage, milk would be whiter, whereas in the spring and summer, when milk was rich in beta-carotene from eating fresh grass, milk would be more yellow and richer in fat and flavor, which also meant that it tasted better.
Manufacturers, therefore, decided to standardize product year-round by making every batch of cheese the same color. The color that became the standard was an even more vibrant tone of that yellow shade, believing that they could somehow convey a high level of quality with a color that conveyed such positive attributes.
Now, cheeses like Double Gloucester, Cotswald, Shropshire Blue, and Mimolette remain orange because of tradition. In fact, we can't think of one cheese that's new on the cheese scene using annatto as an innovative, original addition, as a nod to Old World cheeses, or something of the like. Perhaps it's because now, orange cheese generally has bad associations because it's linked to American cheese singles and mass produced block cheddar. Pretty ironic, considering the reasons why annatto made its way into cheese in the first place.
• The Cheesemonger: Cheddar