How 17th Century Fraud Gave Rise To Bright Orange Cheese

Nov 7, 2013
Originally published on November 8, 2013 9:46 am

The news from Kraft last week that the company is ditching two artificial dyes in some versions of its macaroni and cheese products left me with a question.

Why did we start coloring cheeses orange to begin with? Turns out there's a curious history here.

In theory, cheese should be whitish — similar to the color of milk, right?

Well, not really. Centuries ago in England, lots of cheeses had a natural yellowish-orange pigment. The cheese came from the milk of certain breeds of cows, such as Jersey and Guernsey. Their milk tends to be richer in color from beta-carotene in the grass they eat.

So, when the orange pigment transferred to the cow's milk, and then to the cheese, it was considered a mark of quality.

Cows on the grassy hillsides of Shelburne Farms in Vermont.
Courtesy of Vera Chang, Shelburne Farms

But here's where the story gets interesting.

Cheese expert Paul Kindstedt of the University of Vermont explains that back in the 17th century, many English cheesemakers realized that they could make more money if they skimmed off the cream — to sell it separately or make butter from it.

But in doing so, most of the color was lost, since the natural orange pigment is carried in the fatty cream.

So, to pass off what was left over — basically low-fat cheese made from white milk — as a high-quality product, the cheesemakers faked it.

"The cheesemakers were initially trying to trick people to mask the white color [of their cheese]," explains Kindstedt.

They began adding coloring from saffron, marigold, carrot juice and later, annatto, which comes from the seeds of a tropical plant. (It's also what Kraft will use to color its new varieties of macaroni and cheese.)

The devious cheesemakers of the 17th century used these colorings to pass their products off as the full-fat, naturally yellowish-orange cheese that Londoners had come to expect.

The tradition of coloring cheese then carried over in the U.S. Lots of cheesemakers in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York have a long history of coloring cheddar.

The motivation was part tradition, part marketing to make their cheeses stand out. There was another reason, too: It helped cheesemakers achieve a uniform color in their cheeses.

But Kindstedt says it's not a tradition that ever caught on in New England dairy farms.

"Here in New England there was a disdain for brightly colored cheese," Kindstedt says.

And that's why to this day, we still see lots of naturally white cheddar cheese from places such as Vermont.

With the boom in the artisanal food movement, we're starting to see more cheese produced from grass-fed cows.

And as a result, we may notice the butterlike color in summer cheeses — similar to what the 17th century Londoners ate.

"We absolutely see the color changes when the cows transition onto pasture in early May," cheesemaker Nat Bacon of Shelburne Farms in Vermont wrote to us in an email. He says it's especially evident "in the whey after we cut the curd, and also in the finished cheese. Both get quite golden in color, kind of like straw, with the beta-carotenes the cows are eating in the fresh meadow grasses."

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Now, another story about changes in food additives, Kraft is changing some, but not all, of its mac and cheese products. It's ditching the artificial dyes that give it that bright day glow orange color in versions of the product that are specifically marketed to kids. Kraft will also up the whole grains and cut sodium. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins me here in the studio.

And Allison, we should explain. First of all, we're not talking about your standard issue Kraft Mac and Cheese, the elbow shape, right?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: That's right. That's right. What we're talking about here are what Kraft calls its shapes products. These are, say, Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or SpongeBob Squarepants. These are the varieties marketed to kids.

BLOCK: Okay. And those are the ones where Kraft is going to remove the petroleum-based dyes, Yellow number 5 and Yellow number 6. Why are they doing that?

AUBREY: Well, I think a big part of this story here is that they're responding to consumer demand. They say that they've heard from parents who want more varieties of macaroni and cheese with improved nutrition. Also there's a petition out there signed by hundreds of thousands of people, including many parents, calling on the company to remove these dyes.

The petitioners say that the dyes have been phased out in some countries and Europe and they point to studies that suggest that dyes may make some children hyperactive. Now, the science is incomplete on this matter and there are different opinions among physicians, but many parents are convinced of it and Kraft gets it.

BLOCK: So if they're taking out those dyes, are they replacing them with something else?

AUBREY: That's right. I brought in some props. What they're replacing these dyes with are some plant-based natural spices. I've got turmeric here. This is the Indian spice and in large enough doses, it's got anti-inflammatory effects. There's also paprika, which is made from red pepper that had kind of a peppery taste. And the third coloring is called annatto, which is a cooking spice used in Latin American and Caribbean cooking.

It's also been used to color foods for centuries. It's made from a tropical seed.

BLOCK: It sounds like all those things would change the taste (unintelligible).

AUBREY: You would think. You would think. I spoke to a Kraft spokeswoman and she assured me that these new mac and cheese products will have the same taste that consumers, as she said, expect and love, so my guess is that the doses will be small enough, of these spices, that you won't taste them.

BLOCK: That same taste you know and love, otherwise known as completely bland, right?

AUBREY: Right, right, could be.

BLOCK: But we did want to talk about this, too, which is the question of why food makers dye food orange in the first place.

AUBREY: It's curious, right? Well, there's actually a really interesting story here. It turns out that once upon a time, a lot of cheese did have a yellowish-orangey hue to it and that's because the cheese was made from milk produced by cows who grazed on grasses rich in beta carotene. So this orange hue transferred to their milk.

So in England, in the 17th century, the orange color was considered a mark of quality. But what happened is that the cheese makers learned that they could make twice as much money if they skimmed the cream from the top to make butter, but in doing so, all the orange pigment went with it. So they were left with just the skim white milk to make the cheese.

So what did they do? They started faking it. They'd add back in the red or the orange using saffron or annatto, to make it look like the full fat cheese. So really it was a bit of fraud that started the tradition of coloring cheese orange. I talked to cheese expert Paul Kinstedt. He's a professor at the University of Vermont.

PAUL KINSTEDT: The English cheese makers indeed were trying to trick people, initially, in order to mask this white color.

AUBREY: And people got used to it. Here in the states, many cheese makers continued the tradition in part as a way to guarantee uniformity and the color of the cheese, but Kinstedt says not in New England.

KINSTEDT: Here in New England it was really distain for brightly colored cheese. We don't like the color here.

AUBREY: So to this day is why you still see a lot of naturally white cheddar from Vermont.

BLOCK: Okay. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey explaining some upcoming changes to some, but not all, Kraft Mac and Cheese products. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.