How False Advertising Created Kraft’s Famous Bright Orange ‘Cheese’

Earlier this week our own Shawn Paul Wood made light of Kraft‘s decision to get rid of the artificial dyes that give some of its mac and cheese products that signature “nuclear orange” color in response to an online consumer petition.

We would call this a PR win, but NPR‘s “All Things Considered” wanted to know more: why did Kraft feel the need to color its cheese in the first place?

The answer is simple: a 250-year-old-case of false advertising.

You’d think most cheese would be naturally white because it’s derived from milk, but some of the highest-quality 17th century cheeses had their own unique orange sheen, primarily due to “the beta-carotene in the grass” eaten by the (British) cows that produced it. At some point, wily cheese-makers realized they could make twice as much money from their “crop” by skimming the cream from the top to make butter—but this move also removed the famous orange pigment known to denote quality of product.

Their solution to this creamy conundrum was a “fake it ’til you make it” strategy in which they artificially colored the cheese with trick ingredients like “saffron, marigold, carrot juice and later, annatto, which comes from the seeds of a tropical plant” (coincidentally, Kraft will also use annatto to color its kids’ cheese products moving forward).

People got used to it, and everyone outside of super-snooty New England expected “cheese” to look like the stock image on this post. Today’s Vermont cheddar is white because time and snobbery eventually flipped the equation—now lighter cheese is generally seen to be of higher quality.

Marketers take note.

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