The recent announcements by almost every multi-national to eliminate artificial colorings and flavors in products from macaroni & cheese to candy reminded me of my long held curiosity for why some cheese is orange while others are not.
A little bit of history first
According to this story from NPR, dying cheese orange dates back to the 17th century. Cows in England ate a beta-carotene rich grass diet causing a slight tinge to the end result. However, as cheese mongers tried to literally skim the fat (cream) to reduce costs and use the cream to make other products to sell, they had to dye the cheese because the cheese because the cream was the ingredient which made the cheese appear orange. Instead, spices such as saffron, marigold, carrot juice and annatto were added to fake the orange color.
As the US was colonized, the practice of dying cheese carried over. And as food science produced artificial colors like Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 6, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake and Yellow 5 Lake, combinations of these were used by food companies to achieve orange hues in a range of products, including cheese.
What the Data Says
Of the 3,499 hard cheese products I analyzed, I focused on 988 of them. While a number of types of cheeses including Gouda and Havarti contained coloring ingredients, the concentration really fell to Colby and Cheddar products.
First the ingredient count overall. Colby averaged 5.8 ingredients while Cheddar averaged 6.8.
The breakdown of Colby and Cheddar across the 988 products was 159 Colby and 829 Cheddar cheeses.
Note: I did not include multi pack cheese products that combined Colby or Cheddar with either each other or other types of cheeses.
For Colby, 99% contained natural or artificial coloring agents, with only 4% having artificial coloring and 95% containing Annatto. Only 2 cheeses: a white Colby by Cracker Barrel and an organic Colby by Rumiano did not contain any coloring ingredients added.
For Cheddar, 62% contained natural or artificial colors, with 59% containing Annatto, .1% with Carrot juice and 3% with artificial colors.
So what should you do?
If you are a Colby cheese lover, eating coloring is really your only option. The good news is most products are already colored with the natural coloring Annatto. The major brand that contained artificial coloring was Walmart’s Great Value.
If you are a cheddar lover, you have a lot more options. As always, a good rule of thumb is to buy the shortest ingredient list. Cheddar with 3 ingredients or less did not contain coloring. Also look for cheese made in New England, where coloring cheese never caught on. And if all else fails, search for those colored with Annatto.