Bookmark and Share December 29, 2009 - Dave Mulder

Why is some cheddar cheese orange?

At this very moment, a child somewhere is eating cheddar cheese. It may be in her lunch box, on a sandwich, or accompanying a Triscuit. If you can picture this scene in your head, odds are that the cheddar cheese itself is orange.

Orange cheddar cheese has become the American rule, not the exception.  There’s a straightforward historical reason for this.

Cheese production was originally a way to preserve milk. You separate the curd from the whey, then process the curd to create whatever kind of cheese you want. Cheese can last quite a bit longer than milk can without refrigeration (and remember, refrigeration is a relatively recent technological achievement), so it was easier to transport.

Making cheese

Cows eat grass, and grass contains beta carotene (which naturally makes the cheese more orange). The more grass a cow eats, the more beta carotene ends up in the milk it produces, and therefore the more orange the cheese. Orange-ish cheese was also associated with being more flavorful (and therefore better).

In the Fall and Winter, cows eat little or no grass. With less beta carotene in their milk, the cheese product ends up being less colorful.

Cheese producers remedied this inconsistency by adding annatto (a natural red food coloring from the seeds of a fruit). If cheddar cheese is orange all year round, then consumers won’t be able to discriminate it based on season.

This practice has persisted into modern society and was gladly incorporated by America’s industrial agriculture. So today, in American grade school cafeterias, cheddar cheese is orange because Kraft says it is orange (and because cheese producers a long time ago recognized that people will buy more orange cheddar cheese simply because it is orange).


Recent backlash against orange cheddar cheese has brought natural white and pale yellow cheddar cheese back into demand. Stop by any health food store, co-op, or even the artisan cheese section of your large brick & mortar chain grocery and you will find plenty of natural, non-colored cheddar cheese.

It will still be delicious.

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