I thought about this and wondered, at first, if it had anything to do with margarine
. When I was a kid
and margarine came on the market, it was dead white
and thoroughly unappetizing
to look at. Then it came packaged with a little paper twist of orange food colouring
which all of us little kids had to stir and stir and stir into the margarine. It took a very long time and wasn’t much fun
. The end result
of all of that effort
was a bright orange mass of grease
, very similar in colour to bright orange cheddar cheese.
After doing some research on cheese, I discovered that orange cheese is a slightly different story. According to cheese historians, the colour originated many years ago in England. Cow's milk contains varying amounts of beta-carotene, the yellow-orange stuff found in carrots and other vegetables. Milk from pasture-fed cows has higher beta-carotene levels in the spring and summer, when the cows are munching on fresh grass, and lower levels during the fall and winter, when they're eating hay. The natural color of the cheese varies over the course of a year, so cheese makers began adding coloring agents.
Nowadays the most common of these is annatto, a yellow-red dye made from the seeds of a tree of the same name. Dyeing the cheese covered over seasonal colour fluctuations and also played into the fact (or anyway the belief) that spring/summer milk had a higher butterfat content than the fall/winter kind and thus produced more flavorful cheese.
Figuring that if yellow is good, then orange must be better, some cheese makers began ladling in the annatto in double handfuls, producing cheese that looks like orange playdough. In recent years some smaller operations have rebelled and stopped using colorants. According to one cheese-making text, uncolored cheese is a "sordid, unappetizing melange of dirty yellow."
Don't believe it. That shade of orange has little to do with butter or cheese.