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How Does Cheddar Get Its Color? 

Cheddar's color correlates with flavor—but not in the way you expect. 

Published Sept. 15, 2022.

When you shop for cheddar, you’ve probably noticed how much variation there is in the color of different blocks and wedges. Some cheddars are bright white. Others are a deep, dark orange. And you can find cheddar in every shade in between.

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Cheddar is one of America’s favorite cheeses, and people have strong preferences about which color is best. 

You might prefer a white cheddar in your macaroni and cheese. Or maybe you're more inclined to favor a bright orange cheese pull when you bite into your grilled cheese sandwich.

But how does cheddar get to be that color? And what (if anything) does it have to do with flavor? Here are the two things that play a role in coloring cheddar.

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Plays a Small Role: The Milk (and the Diet of the Animals It Comes From)

When cows eat a lot of grass, which is rich in beta carotene, the orange-hued plant pigment tints their milk yellow. That yellowish milk results in a yellowish cheese. But it's subtle; you won't find a deep dark orange hue that was created by diet alone.

As a general rule, cheddars from Ireland and New Zealand (think: Dubliner) are more yellow in color than most cheddar made in America (think: Kraft) because cows in those countries eat more grass. 

The exception is cheddar made with goat’s milk. Due to how goats process beta-carotene, their milk—and cheese made from it—remains a very bright white. Most cheddar, however, is made from cow’s milk.

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Plays a Major Role: Annatto

But it’s not just diet. Manufacturers can change the color of the milk by adding annatto, which is derived from the seeds of the achiote tree. 

Annatto is used in cooking around the world, but when it comes to cheese, annatto does not affect flavor. In cheesemaking, it's used in liquid form in much smaller amounts than you would use when cooking with it, and it does not affect the flavor of the cheese the way it would when you’re using it as a spice in food.

Some makers only add enough to tint the cheddar a sunny yellow. Others add enough annatto to make the cheddar a very dark shade of orange. 

Map showing preference for white cheddar in New England and preference for orange cheddar in the rest of the country
There are strong regional preferences for orange cheddar versus white cheddar.

Do Orange and White Cheddars Taste Different?

Yes, but it doesn't have anything to do with the addition of annatto. Although annatto does not change the flavor of cheddar, its use offers a clue about where the cheese was made and how it might taste.

In New England, both cheesemakers and shoppers favor white cheddar that has little or no annatto added. Cheddars made in this part of the world also have distinctive flavor. They’re sharp and punchy. Many even taste a bit sulphuric. 

As you move towards the Midwest and the West Coast, it’s common to make cheddars that contain enough annatto to turn dark orange. The style of cheeses made in these parts of the country tend to be slightly acidic, sweeter, and generally more mild than “bitey” white cheddars.

Annatto isn’t responsible for those differences, but it is strongly associated with them.

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