Yellow Cheese vs. White Cheese: Why the Different Colors?

Here's what makes the difference.

blocks of cheddar cheese on a wooden surface

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Because it's widely known that cheese is made from milk and milk is white, it would be more than fair to assume that cheese would be white. Right?

But one stroll down a cheese aisle in any grocery store or market will quickly derail this assumption, as rows and rows of all shades of yellow and orange stare back at you. Where did these golden-hued varieties come from? Why is the orange cheddar simply called "cheddar" and the one actually the color of milk called "white cheddar?"

How Colored Cheese Came To Be

Milk today is white, but centuries ago (as in, prior to the 17th century), when the majority of cheese was made in England, milk was actually golden in color. This was because the cows, specific breeds like Jersey and Guernsey, had a diet of beta-carotene-rich grass and the color of the cheese that resulted from using the cow's cream indicated its superior quality.

But once cheesemakers realized they could skim the cream and sell it separately or churn it into butter, resulting in extra income, the cheese they produced was white, with less fat and flavor than before, and noticeably devoid of its golden orange mark of excellence.

So, in order to mask this low-fat cheese as the product customers knew and loved, makers began using natural food dyes. Over time, this dye became an easy way to ensure their cheeses were uniform in color no matter what shade of milk they used, making the process even more appealing.

Cheese coloring eventually crossed the Atlantic and cheesemakers in New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin adopted the tradition. The only thing New England dairies adopted was a disdain for brightly colored cheeses. So, if you're on the lookout for an orange cheese from Vermont, you'll be looking for a while.

The Deal With Dye

The original natural dyes used in cheesemaking were ingredients like saffron, carrot juice, paprika, or marigold. Eventually, annatto all-but replaced them all. This orange-red dye comes from the tropical achiote tree and is one of the oldest dyes known to mankind, its use dating back to the Aztecs. Annatto is primarily sourced from South America, but is also grown in Mexico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Kenya, India, and The Philippines, and it's used in cheese (especially cheddar) everywhere from small farms to the familiar blue box of macaroni.

Annatto is truly natural and imparts no flavor, so detecting it in your cheese is difficult. (Unless you have a rare allergy to the substance, in which case the hives, stomach pain, or difficulty breathing would be a good indication of its presence.) Rest assured, cheeses with annatto dye don't equate to lesser quality. The only factors that indicate quality are where the cheese was made, how long it was aged, and where it's bought.

American and Cheddar cheese are the most colorful of the cheeses sold today, but both are available in a white variety.

What's the Difference?

Since color doesn't determine quality and annatto dye doesn't affect flavor, which should you choose? Whatever you want! Select your cheese based on your personal preference to taste and sharpness, especially if purchasing pre-packaged options.

Otherwise, for peak quality cheese, skip anything wrapped in plastic, as experts say it suffocates flavor. Cheese stored in a glass case in a store, unwrapped and sold in paper or cloth is the best you can get.

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