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Kraft’s New Natural Cheese Dyes Were the Key Ingredient in a 17th Century Scam

Kraft’s new orange dye was used in the 17th century to trick people into thinking cheese was better than it was

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Kraft’s macaroni and cheese, the one with the bright orange powdered cheese, is getting an overhaul. The company is shedding the two artificial dyes it uses to give the cheese its neon glow in favor of a natural dye blend, and in doing so is falling back on an old cheese-coloring strategy—one started in the 17th century to trick people into thinking their cheap cheese was better than it was.

(Ricky Romero)

In place of Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, says CNN, some of Kraft’s mac and cheese products, come the new year, will be dyed with a beta-carotene concoction derived from achiote seeds. The change will apply to the company’s cartoon-inspired boxed meals, but not to the standard elbow macaroni line.

But the dye made from achiote seeds, known as annatto, says NPR, has its own history in the world of cheese making. Back in the 17th century, when cows were grass-fed grazers, beta-carotenes from the grass would work their way into the cheese giving it a “natural yellowish-orange pigment.”

This soft orange glow, says NPR, was a sign of a good, rich, fat-full cheese. But cheese producers looking to up their profits would often skim the cream from the cheese to sell separately and would lose the orange tint. So, they’d make up for it by dying the cheese orange with annatto.

The devious cheesemakers of the 17th century used these colorings to pass their products off as the full-fat, naturally yellowish-orange cheese that Londoners had come to expect.

So Kraft’s cheese powder still isn’t a good stand-in for a finely aged cheddar, but come the new year, at least, they’ll be faking it in a more storied way.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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