Why is cheddar cheese orange?

Dear Cecil: Why is cheddar cheese orange? Do they color it that way, or is it part of the cheese-ifying process? I know that cheese is made from milk, but I don’t think that I could make the milk in my fridge turn orange, no matter how long I left it in there. What’s up? C.J. Snell, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cecil replies:

It’s orange because they dye it orange. You knew this, of course. The question is, why orange — as opposed to, say, a nice taupe?

As near as cheese historians can make out, the practice originated many years ago in England. Milk contains varying amounts of beta-carotene, the yellow-orange stuff found in carrots and other vegetables. Milk from pasture-fed cows has higher beta-carotene levels in the spring and summer, when the cows are munching on fresh grass, and lower levels during the fall and winter, when they’re eating hay. Thus the natural color of the cheese varies over the course of a year.

So cheese makers began adding coloring agents. Nowadays the most common of these is annatto, a yellow-red dye made from the seeds of a tree of the same name. Dyeing the cheese eliminated seasonal color fluctuations and also played to the fact (or anyway the belief) that spring/summer milk had a higher butterfat content than the fall/winter kind and thus produced more flavorful cheese.

Figuring if yellow = good, orange = better, some cheese makers began ladling in the annatto in double handfuls, producing cheese that looked like something you’d want to carve into a jack-o’-lantern. In recent years some smaller operations have rebelled and stopped using colorants. Be forewarned — according to one cheese making text, uncolored cheese is a “sordid, unappetizing melange of dirty yellow.” But it’s real.

A related question: What’s the deal with so-called process cheese and cheese spreads such as the infamous Velveeta? They’re not completely synthetic, as some believe; rather, they’re made by mixing and heating natural cheeses and emulsifiers, producing a “homogenous plastic mass.” (I’m quoting from my cheese book, you understand.) While we gourmands may sniff at such stuff, it has the advantages of uniformity, long shelf life, and comparatively low production cost, no small achievement in a world where many are glad to have any cheese at all.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.