What makes Wisconsin cheddar cheese orange?

Cheese isn't orange naturally, if you didn't know

Wisconsin is known for its orange-colored cheddar cheese — but cheese isn’t that color naturally.

It’s actually dyed with a natural product called annatto, which is the pulp that comes from the seeds of the achiote tree, originating from South and Central America.

“It’s pretty much standard in the industry for dying cheese,” says Jeff Peterson, a cheesemonger at Fromagination.

No one is quite sure when and where this method originated, but as the top producer of colby and cheddar cheese, Wisconsin likely uses more annatto than any other state in the country. Other earlier and less common methods of dying cheddar have included the use of carrot juice, marigolds and even cochineal, which comes from bugs. Peterson says he gets a lot of customers who are interested in buying white cheddar because they think it’s an unadulterated product — they think a bright orange color isn’t natural. But annatto is a 100 percent plant-based food coloring.

“And you’ll actually see it on restaurant menus sometimes as ‘achiote,'” says Peterson. “It has had culinary applications for many generations, and produces a really rich, dark, bright orange dye.”

So why does Wisconsin continue the centuries-old tradition of dying cheese orange? Jeanne Carpenter, an American Cheese Society certified cheese professional and Cheese Underground creator, says it likely has to do with marketing and making Wisconsin cheese stand out. “Wisconsin cheesemakers wanted to differentiate their cheddars from those coming from New York, so they used annatto seed and turned their cheddars orange, using it as their own claim to fame and capturing a portion of the market,” writes Carpenter.

This article is part of the May 2019 cover story, “50 Things That Give Madison Color.” Click here for the full story.