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FAQ: Why is some cheddar cheese orange and some white?

As our cheese and crackers sale comes to a close today, we want to give you some insight on one of the most intriguing foods in our aisles: orange cheddar cheese.

FAQ: Why is some cheddar cheese orange and some white?

A: Orange cheddar is a tradition that began in 17th century England, when the cheese was first produced. There are a number of reasons why cheese makers today no longer produce naturally orange cheddar…

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It all Starts With the Cows.

To produce milk, cows use beta carotene (the same nutrient that makes carrots orange). The cows in Cheddar, England, where cheddar cheese originated, enjoyed a diet rich in beta carotene- especially in the spring, when they ate from the pasture. In the winter, the cows ate mostly hay and their milk contained less beta carotene. Naturally orange cheddar depends on what’s available for cows to eat during the season.

Everyone Loves Cheddar

Because of the difference in color between the seasons, cheese lovers in 17th century England came to recognize yellowy-orange as a more quality, flavor-rich cheese. Cheddar quickly became one of the most popular, well known cheeses available.

Meanwhile, cheese makers realized they could make more money from the richer, creamier top portion of their stock and began to skim this off and sell it separately. Unfortunately, the rest of the cheese stock at the bottom did not contain as much beta carotene and was markedly different in color. The cheese makers responded to high demand by coloring their products artificially. Most cheddar that is orange today is artificially colored.

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Preserving Cheddar’s Colorful Past

Cheese makers used natural sources like marigold flowers to color their cheddar, and when the cheesemaking traditions carried over to America, some farmers chose to continue this method. Although there was no longer such a high demand for orange cheese especially among New England consumers, the coloring process created a product that stood out with bright, uniform color. To this day, the method continues. Even Kraft Foods, which colored its cheddar products artificially with chemicals, recently reverted back to using natural coloring agents. It joined the many other producers that use a red powder ground from seeds of the tropical annatto tree.

Though few and far between, there are a handful of artisan cheese makers that note a naturally occurring change in color as their cows feed from one season to the next.

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Getting the Alpha Amount of Beta Carotene

Even though you can’t depend on cheddar for your daily intake of beta carotene, there are plenty of other places to find it, including carrots, beets, spinach, apricots, broccoli, chives, sweet potatoes chard, kale, and more….

Text and photos: Kate Bandzmer

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