Shopping for cheese can be a pretty intimidating experience once you venture beyond the familiar grocery store brands. And that’s not just when it comes to the obscure French cheeses. Even good old cheddar comes in all sorts of colors and price points.
Not than any of that has stopped us from buying it. Americans consumed around 37 pounds per capita of cheese in 2017.
While we’re hardly qualified to navigate the delicate ins and outs of every single type of cheese out there, we can shed some light on a question that’s bothered most consumers at some point: the difference between white and orange cheddar.
The answer is actually quite simple. Orange cheddar has had color added, while white cheddar has not.
Josh Windsor, of Murray’s Cheese, told HuffPost that the most common theory for why some cheddar is dyed at all is to give it a consistent look throughout the year. And that all comes back to the cows
When cows graze on fresh grass, beta carotene—the red-orange pigment found naturally in many plants—eventually ends up in the milk.
“The milk itself will still appear white due to the way the butterfat in milk scatters light,” Windsor said. “However, if you make butter or cheese from that milk, the resulting product will appear more yellow or orange when the cow had been feeding on more green, leafy pasture.”
The milk of cows that haven’t been chomping on greens—whether it’s for seasonal reasons or otherwise—lacks beta carotene. Cheddar made from said milk will therefore lack color.
It is believed that people find orange cheddar more appetizing than white cheddar, so in goes the color.
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According to Windsor, many cheesemakers use annatto, a food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, to give their cheddar a rich orange hue. The small amounts needed to create an orange color have very little effect on the cheese’s taste or nutritional value.
So, when it comes to selecting cheddar cheese, don’t let the color influence your decision. It’s purely superficial!