When I was a younger, if you had told me cheese wasn’t supposed to be orange or yellow, I would have told you you were crazy. All the cheese I knew – the kind that comes out of a long rectangle encased in foil, the kind that you open in single sheets between two thin layers of plastic, and the kind that comes powdered that you mix with milk to put on noodles – all of the cheese I knew was yellowish orange. I’m sure I even refused to eat cheesy dishes that didn’t have the appropriate color, except of course that white parmesan powder I ate on my “puh-sgetti”.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that ooey-gooey layer in my grilled cheese “sammiches” didn’t always have the glow of an orange crayon. Although food coloring has been done for centuries, now that food scientists in labs have isolated the compounds in plants, dirt, and even insects, artificial reproductions of natural coloring compounds are abundant in the food system. The recipe below, for that plastic-wrapped American “cheese product” populating lunchboxes across the nation, includes three separate coloring agents to make a simple white cheese a more edible yellowy hue:
INGREDIENTS: [cheddar cheese, [milk]], whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, apocarotenal (color),annatto (color), enzymes, vitamin D3, cheese culture,yellow dye.
1. It all starts with cultured milk. Most milk in processed products are the result of the conventional dairy industry, complete with antibiotics, feedlots, and artificial growth hormones. This milk is cultured using a specific bacteria blend, to create any variety of cheese. Today, American cheese no longer meets the FDA’s definition of a real cheese, and is therefore labeled as a “cheese product”.
2. Color me happy. Way back when nearly all farms were mixed grain and animal operations, farmers used to sell their excess milk and eggs alongside their wheat and corn. Since their animals were all free range and grass-fed, the cow’s milk would look more golden during the summer months when they were munching on more fresh grass – which contain carotenes, like the beta carotene that makes carrots orange. Most of this color would be skimmed off in the butter making process – as, like harsh chemicals and pesticides today, it is most concentrated in the milkfat – thus, savvy consumers would avoid a “skimmed”, and also whiter, cheese. Farmers used a variety of natural plant dyes to make the cheese they sold retain a more goldeny color – so even from the start the dyes were used to deceive: today they are used to make product look fresher, play with our psychological tendency towards oranges and reds as food sources, and meet a consumer standard that was created by cheese marketers in recent decades.
3. A little more. Many of the dyes used in food products come from natural sources. Annatto – an extract from the seeds of the Bixa Orella tree – was used by Native Americans to dye foods and clothing, and is now used to help color American cheese slices. Similarly, apocarotenal is a member of the carotene family (again, think carrots), and has a natural source. However, the compounds responsible for the color in these “natural” pigments has been isolated, replicated, and patented – on sale at a lab (or dairy aisle) near you.
4. And a little more. Of even more concern is the seemingly benign (and at least recognizable) ingredient “yellow food dye”. The outbreak of inexplicable allergic reactions to a wide variety of foods – and even increases in behavioral disorders such as ADHD – led researchers to begin thinking about food additives as a source. Sure enough, a link was found between artificial food colorings – especially a yellow dye (AKA: Tetrazine) – and increased food allergies, especially among young children.
5. Wrap it up. These rubbery, orange sheets are pressed between two layers of plastic, then wrapped in a colored plastic container, and shipped to stores around the globe. If the preservatives won’t keep the cheese fresh long enough, the artificial colors will keep anyone from being able to tell.
EAT OUTSIDE THE BOX: Using one same simple start, learn how to make creamy homemade ricotta and a solid Indian paneer.