Hundreds of years ago, if you had bought cheese from a market, it would have been yellow. Not the bright orange-yellow of cheeseburgers or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but a more subtle yellow hue. That color was entirely natural, and it was the result of cows, especially breeds such as Jersey and Guernsey, grazing on grass rich in beta-carotene.
In the 17th century, though, things began to change. Not surprisingly, money was involved. Cheese producers started skimming the yellow-tinted cream off the top of milk before making cheese, and selling it separately or turning it into butter. To replicate the natural yellow shade in white, lower-fat cheese, they added a variety of natural dyes, most notably a seed-derived dye known as annatto, which is still widely used today. Dying cheese also ensures that products have a uniform color.
These days, there's no discernible difference in taste between white cheese and yellow cheese (though some say annatto has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor), unless they've been matured or smoked.
- Before settling on annatto, cheesemakers used marigold, saffron, and even carrot juice to turn their cheeses yellow.
- Some cheesemakers prefer leaving their cheese in its natural state, which is why Vermont cheddar is white, whereas cheddar from the Midwest is usually yellow.
- Cheddar cheese originated from the English village of Cheddar, where it was matured in the caves of Cheddar Gorge, which had the ideal temperature and humidity.