What's the Difference Between White Cheese and Yellow Cheese?

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bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images / bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

The cheese aisle of your local supermarket probably features a collection of pale cream, sunny yellow, and deep orange offerings. More colorful shades of cheese are so common that in some cases they've become the default. (Lighter cheddar is labeled white cheddar, while the orange variety is just cheddar.) But most blocks, wedges, and wheels of cheese that aren't white are technically unnatural. And the yellow and orange cheeses sold today are the product of a tradition that originated in the 17th century.

The History of Yellow Cheese

According to NPR, the majority of cheese made in England centuries ago came from cows raised on a diet of beta-carotene-rich grass, resulting in the production of golden-hued milk. This colorful sign of quality started to disappear around the 17th century. Instead of incorporating the cow's cream into their product—which is what gave cheese its color—cheesemakers started selling it separately or processing it into butter for extra revenue. This resulted in white cheese that was lower in fat and flavor than the yellow and orange varieties.

Customers noticed the difference and realized they were being sold a lesser product for the same price. To fool buyers into thinking they were getting the same high-quality goods they remembered, cheesemakers began using food dye in low-fat cheese. Additives such as saffron, marigold, and carrot juice made plain white dairy just as colorful—and in some cases, more vivid—than the full-cream version. These dyes gradually fell out of popularity in favor of annatto, an orange-red food coloring that is derived from the seed of the tropical achiote tree. This gives cheese a rich, yellowish-orange color, and today it's used in everything from cheddar made on small farms to Kraft macaroni and cheese.

Yellow vs. White Cheese: What's the Difference?

The use of yellow dye in cheesemaking has stuck around, but it no longer serves its original purpose. Over the years, cheesemakers began to see another benefit of using additives like annatto: Dyed cheeses come out looking uniform even if they're made with varying shades of milk (which is often the case). Consumers have also come to expect a bright orange hue from certain cheeses, just like customers expected a natural golden color from grass-fed cheese in the 17th century.

The most colorful cheeses sold today tend to be American and cheddar, but both cheeses are available in muted white shades as well. So what's the difference between the two colors? As far as flavor goes, there isn't one. Cheeses that have been aged for the same amount of time will taste the same even if one comes in a more eye-catching shade. But not everyone should pick the color of their wedges based on aesthetics alone. Though the majority of consumers can't detect the annatto in yellow cheese, the additive can trigger reactions in some people with nut allergies. Common symptoms related to annatto allergies include hives, difficulty breathing, and stomach pain. Such reactions are rare, however, and most cheese connoisseurs would have trouble telling apart white cheddar from yellow cheddar in a blind taste-test.

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