Cheese...Green? Yellow? Orange? Blue?

Cheese is a wonderful thing. I love it on everything and by itself. But one thing does bother me...why is it not always white? I know milk is white...or whiteish, and I know that cheese is made with milk, and I know that curd is white. So why, oh why do folks mess with it to make it green, yellow, orange, blue, etc...?

A: This is actually a combination of at least two questions, chiefly, "What makes cheeses funny colors?" and, "Why would anyone do that to cheese?"

The first answer is easy enough. Blue and green cheeses are colored by the mold cultures grown in them. Otherwise, cheeses inhabit a fairly narrow range of color from white to a golden cream. Bright, screaming orange cheeses have orange dye added to them.

As for why people would dicker about with the color of cheeses, there is a good amount of legend and debate. For example: Cheddar cheese (known as "Tasty cheese" in Australia, I love that) has often been colored orange in the UK and almost always in the US. I had heard that the reason for the color was that, during either WWI or WWII, the Germans had attempted to poison Allied food supplies. The US began dyeing their cheeses orange to show that they were safe to eat. Afterwards, people got used to the "good" cheese being orange, and it was perpetuated by the marketers of cheese, like Kraft.

This theory has holes in it. For instance, the Germans wouldn't have to be geniuses to figure this out. If they were serious about killing the Allies with dairy products, the Axis would definitely have started dyeing the poisoned cheeses also. This would have sparked a "rainbow cheese" war, in which the final color for cheddar would be whatever it was when the Germans decided to give up and go back to bombing us instead. I'm betting such an arms race would have left cheddar lavender or screaming pink. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that this is true.

A more likely reason for orange cheddar (though possibly not true either) is that cheddar and other more orange-y cheeses occur naturally during spring and summer months, when cows can tuck in to carrots and other veggies with a high beta-carotene content. Beta-carotene colors the cheese, and the happy cows produce more buttery milk, which makes the cheeses more tasty. Marketers realized that people looked for the orange cheeses, expecting that warmer-month cheeses were better, so all cheeses were dosed with carrot juice (later, synthetic dyes) to make them more appealing. The hole in this theory is that the beta-carotene should also make orange milk, which, as far as I know, it doesn't. But maybe the milk is being dyed back to white. Dizzying, isn't it?

Comments