Color can give a clue as to what animal made the milk, the animal’s diet, and other ingredients that were added to the cheese.
Oftentimes color is an afterthought when thinking about cheese. A common mantra by cheesemongers goes “Ceteris paribus, white cheddar and yellow cheddar taste the same”. While that may be true to some extent, that doesn’t mean color isn’t an important quality parameter for cheese. It influences consumers’ buying decisions and, in some cases, can shed light on what the origins of the milk are.
This post will take a simplified look at color overall and discuss three basic colors you find in cheese: orange, yellow, and white. There are always exceptions and color can always be affected by a multitude of factors not discussed here. Age of cheese, inclusions, and animal breed are just a few factors that could affect color, and they won’t be discussed here.Top
The deep orange color most people associate with cheeses like cheddar and colby comes from annatto. Annatto is a seed from the South American achiote tree (Bixa orellana). The seeds aren’t used directly from the tree, instead a liquid extract is made using the seeds.
The pigment responsible for annatto’s coloring properties is bixin. When extracted directly from annatto, bixin isn’t very water soluble. Since cheesemakers add annatto extract directly to the milk (which is mostly water), that means bixin wouldn’t mix well into the milk. To help with this, annatto extract producers will treat the seeds with heat and alkaline conditions in order to convert bixin into norbixin. This new form of bixin is water soluble and suitable to be added to milk directly. The process isn’t perfect, and annatto extract contains both forms, bixin and norbixin.
The history of annatto addition to cheese is really quite interesting and will be discussed in its own post…someday. It’s commonly accepted that annatto addition doesn’t affect flavor in any perceptible way. However, very little research has been done to see if there could be an effect during prolonged aging periods.Top
Cow’s milk cheese, when made without annatto, will usually be anywhere from pale yellow/cream color to deep yellow/straw colored. The yellow color is derived from the milk and furthermore by the diet of the cow. Cow’s will absorb carotenoid compounds from their feed and deposit them into their milk. Carotenoids, namely ß-carotene, are yellow in color. These compounds are fat soluble and end up in the milkfat, which is retained and concentrated during cheese making. The Milk Chemistry post touched on this.
ß-carotene is found in high amounts in grass and clover. Meaning, the more grass the cow’s eat the more ß-carotene ends up in the milk, and the more yellow the cheese will be! A deep yellow color can also give you a clue that the cheese may also taste “grassy”. Compounds from the grass make their way into cheese and give it a unique grassy or vegetative flavor.
If a cheese is very white (as in snow white), then chances are it is a goat milk cheese. Remember how cow’s deposited all that ß-carotene they ate into the milk? Goats and Sheep (to some degree) don’t do that. They, instead, breakdown ß-carotene into colorless Vitamin A. Which also explains why these cheeses have much higher levels of Vitamin A than cow’s milk cheeses.
As I said earlier, this is just a general clue you can use. Will you find goat and sheep milk cheeses that are not snow white? Definitely. Color can be a powerful piece of information, but don’t let it bias you into a wrong conclusion.
For More Information
- Annatto extracts - Chemical and Technical Assessment
- Wikipedia - Annatto
- Cheese Color - Fundamentals of Cheese Science
One-sheet summary of the information contained in this post.