Why Some Cheddar Cheese Is Bright Orange

One of the most popular cheeses in the world, cheddar cheese originally hails from Somerset, England, according to Cheese.com. Today, any cheese producer can make the pasteurized cow's milk product and sell it under the name cheddar, as it is not a protected cheese in the same way Italian Parmigiana Reggiano is.

A hard cheese with a soft to crumbly texture and a taste that becomes sharper with the passage of time, cheddar can vary quite a bit depending on the brand, age, and location you're purchasing it from. The natural hue of cheddar cheese is a pale yellow, but wander down the dairy aisle of almost any supermarket and you'll likely notice a wide gradient of colors all being sold as cheddar cheese: from pale milk to bright orange. You may assume the answer to this colorful question is artificial dye or bleach, but the truth is more complicated.

The real agent of color in cheddar cheese

According to America's Test Kitchen, the diet of cows can impact the resulting color of cheese; the more grass consumed, the more beta carotene is present (the orange-hued pigment famously found in carrots), which leads to a yellow tinge in milk. Though the variations in color are fairly minor, Culture reports some cheesemakers prefer to color their cheese so it remains consistent from batch to batch and season to season. To do so, these cheesemakers often turn to annatto, a coloring agent made from ground-up seeds of the annatto tree, found in regions of Central and South America (via Kitchn).

There are regional preferences for colors of cheddar, which America's Test Kitchen explains in turn are associated with different flavor profiles. (It's worth noting the presence of annatto does not impact cheddar's taste, as the variations in color and flavor are not caused by the same factors.) The more west one goes in the U.S., the more people are fond of darker, oranger cheddars, which tend to be sweeter; On the east coast, the preferred cheddars are lighter in color and are punchier, sharper, and even have a bit of a sulfuric taste.