Why Is So Much Cheese Bright Yellow?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Full-fat cheese from grass-fed cows has a yellow hue; dye was added to replicate this in lower-quality cheese.
Full-fat cheese from grass-fed cows has a yellow hue; dye was added to replicate this in lower-quality cheese.

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.

Say cheese:

  • 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.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for wiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for wiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.

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    • Full-fat cheese from grass-fed cows has a yellow hue; dye was added to replicate this in lower-quality cheese.
      By: Amy Stephenson
      Full-fat cheese from grass-fed cows has a yellow hue; dye was added to replicate this in lower-quality cheese.