Revisited Myth # 111: Orange dye was added to American cheese during the Civil War to differentiate between Northern-made cheese and Southern.

Pat McMillion of Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote, “The cheese monger at our local Publix told me today that the only difference between white and yellow American cheese is that dye is added…. ever since the Civil War when dye was added to tell the difference between cheese produced in the north and cheese produced in the south. That really sounded mythical to me, but I haven’t found any substantiation on the web. Is that a myth, legend or truth?”

Well, Pat, you have stumbled into one of my deepest secrets with this question. I will now have to confess that for three years after I graduated from college, I sold cheese for Kraft Foods in Cleveland, Ohio. (It was a recession, for heaven’s sake, so I was lucky to have a job at all!) Kraft sent me to cheese factories to learn all about processed cheese, white cheese, orange cheese, Cheez Whiz, Velveeta, and every sort of cheese, and I can personally assure you that American cheese (aka processed cheese) was not around during the Civil War.

J. L. Kraft invented American cheese and started producing it in 1915; he got the patent in 1916. It was originally sold in tins and was white. Because it was the middle of World War I, the Army bought up lots and shipped it to our soldiers in Europe, because it didn’t need refrigeration. Yum!!!

Later, I don’t know when exactly, orange color was added, but this old advertisement dates from the Twenties, and it shows that it was orange by then.

Thanks go to Deanna Berkemeier, who sent in documentation of cheese coloring prior to the American Civil War. Cheese makers did sometimes add color (and other things) to their products, for instance, “a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots.” See more examples below. There is no evidence that this had anything to do with North/South production. 


April 20, 2013 at 9:05 am (Edit)
Thank you SO much for this answer. I’ll take it to the cheese monger today!! How fortuitous that you have first hand information. I have been spreading your messages about historic myths ever since I found your site over a year ago. You always get the credit and advertising for your wonderful book when I do a program on historic myths. Now, folks come to me to ask if things are true. Between you and Snopes I can usually burst some pretty egregious myths and urban legends. I will be coming to CW this summer to introduce my grandson to my love of history. I would love to meet you and thank you in person for the excellent research. Hugs, Pat McMillion Burritt on the Mountain Huntsville, Alabama

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:10 am (Edit)
Thanks, Pat. Just let me know when you are in Williamsburg and I’ll try to meet you.

opusanglicanum says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
orange dye is added to cheap cheese in the uk to make it look more appetising – its meant to immitate the classic red liecester – it also fools the pallete into thinking the cheese tastes cheesier. It’s been around for a long time, since victorian times at least. I grew up knowing that orange cheese was cheap and nasty, so never ate it.

I’ve heard about velveeta, it sounds disgusting

Greg says:
April 26, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
At the Tillamook cheese factory in Oregon they will tell you that natural cheddar cheese comes out in various shades of white. While this is not related to quality, they started adding orange color so that it would have a consistent color. People thought that the less white batches meant the cheese had gone bad.,

Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm (Edit)
I’ve never heard this myth before, but I think you may have missed the point on this. It’s all in the way you read the question. Perhaps the cheese-monger did indeed mean “American cheese”, however there was a lot of “American” cheese made before the Civil War, because all kinds of Americans made cheese. American of the time referring to as opposed to European imports. Some people did color cheese to make it look richer. I have found many negative references to it, such as (paraphrased) you would not thank the farmer for coloring your milk, so why thank him for coloring your cheese? Many of these references are pre-Civil War, so I think the answer is still no. But is there any correlation to coloring cheese at a greater rate to differentiate between north and south? I’ve never looked into it, but I also doubt it.

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:02 pm (Edit)
In all fairness, Velveeta isn’t exactly disgusting, it’s okay when melted in a grilled cheese sandwich or sliced on a hamburger, but I’d not be interested in eating it plain or on a cracker.
We can discuss the meaning of the words “American cheese.” Today it means processed “cheesefood,” a dairy product that is cheese cooked and “processed” so it lasts longer without getting moldy. Good news for soldiers in WWI. Americans made cheese during the Civil War of course, but that isn’t what we’re talking about. I’d be interested in your pre-Civil War primary accounts to coloring cheese, as I can’t imagine why anyone would color their own homemade cheese.

Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 21, 2013 at 12:35 am (Edit)
I understand that “American cheese” today means a processed cheese food. But my point is that since I have only seen those processed cheesefoods in a grocery store and not being sold by an actual cheese-monger who would naturally scoff at a cheesefood even being considered actual cheese, I wonder if the cheese-monger was actually referring to American made natural cheeses being colored yellow rather than being left white. As opposed to European cheeses which are generally left their natural color.
Again, I am not saying that he is correct in any way regarding north vs south. Nor am I saying that what we call American cheese today was around for the Civil war.
I guess that being a cheesemaker of both modern and historic methods, when I read the question that was originally sent in, I understood the question as being the greater one of white vs. orange of American cheese -not the processed stuff- and it crossed my mind that as much reading as I have done on the subject, I have no idea if coloring cheese was related in any way to anything other than making one person or company’s cheese look “richer” than another’s. Higher fat content (richness) makes cheeses appear more yellowish, sometimes deepening to an orange-ish cast. Definitely not annatto orange, but orange-ish nonetheless. People did color cheese (and butter!) with the juice of carrot scrapings, pot marigold petals, and annatto that they purchased in order to make their product more appealing. It was a marketing ploy.
And I’d be more than happy to share some cheese coloring documentation with you. Being a historic cook and a dairy farmer’s wife, dairy is my thang! 🙂

Mary Miley says:
April 21, 2013 at 9:20 am (Edit)
Thanks Deanna–always good to hear from an expert. Do you know more about coloring cheese during the 1860s? Something that might have given rise to this idea of North vs South? I presume they made more cheese in the North, because of the greater proliferation of small farms and dairying than in the South, which probably imported cheese from the North (as they did so many foods).

opusanglicanum says:
April 23, 2013 at 3:11 am (Edit)
I think disgusting is relative – I seem to have been born a cheese snob, since I could never stomach any kind of processed cheese, specially not that yellow dairy based plastic they put on burgers. When I was a child I’d go round to friends houses and thier parents would offer me processed cheese then look at me like i had two heads when I politely inquired as to whether they had a nice mature cheddar? Its my dad;s fault, he used tot ake me to the wensleydale creamery

Melissa Nesbitt says:
April 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm (Edit)
The “scary” thing to me is that I can keep processed American cheese in the fridge a lot longer than other cheeses. Mary can you divulge the secret about that? 😉 (Preservatives and additives I’m sure, but since you mentioned a patent…) P.S. I worked for an insurance company in their marketing department prior to my launch into my museum career. Whatever it took to pay the student loans, right?

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you, Melissa, for being so understanding. 🙂 And I can’t divulge any secrets without torture. Of course, eating Cheez Whiz could be considered torture . . .

Roger Fuller says:
April 20, 2013 at 8:32 pm (Edit)
Here’s probably how it happened: a mainstream Civil War reenactor at a Civil War reenactment got caught by the public eating modern cheese product. Trying to squirm his way out of it, he made up some story about cheese dye. That’s how a lot of these urban legends get started, and with nobody to challenge them, they get told so often, they become “true”.

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:07 pm (Edit)
I’m with you, Roger.

Katherine Louise says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm (Edit)
One cold and rainy day at Plimoth Plantation, Mrs Standish went across the street to visit Mrs Winslow. We drank tea before the fire and got to talking about favorite childhood treats, like bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. Foolishly, we decided to make some then and there–few 20th century folk were about the village on such a day, surely no one would come in–but of course a visitor arrived and exclaimed, “Oh, I loved bread, butter, and sugar when I was a child–I didn’t know the Pilgrim’s ate it too!” Mrs Winslow and I were mortified and tried to salvage the situation (and our reputations) by saying it was a rare treat–sugar was expensive, came all the way from England, and what a dreadful day it was for travelling. Roger is absolutely right about how these stories get started!

Mary Miley says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm (Edit)
Absolvo te. 🙂 (Mercy, I’ve done much worse in my day!)

Deanna Berkemeier says:
May 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm (Edit)
I apologize for it taking me a month to get back to you with some of my cheese coloring documentation you asked for. Chalk it up to preparations for my daughter’s upcoming wedding and our site opening for the season. I do not see an email address to send it to you privately and I hate to post it here, but I will try as a reply in hopes your moderation will catch it. The formatting did not stay, but if you read through each paragraph you will find references to coloring or not coloring cheese. Please note the source dates. Looking quickly, I saw nothing in my files that referenced anything related to coloring in the North vs. South at all. You will also find references to “American cheese” below, but as I noted before, American cheese in the 19th century was a natural cheese and in no way related to any processed cheesefood of today.

The following are some of my collected references to coloring cheese in the 19th century: Researched by Deanna Berkemeier

“If it is required to have the cheese of a Gloucester color, take Spanish anatto, rub a lump in a saucer with milk, a little experience will teach the quantity necessary for a cheese ; then mix it with the rest of the milk, when it is set for cheese. One ounce will cover four or five hundred pounds, and it is bought of the apothecaries. It is perfectly innocent, and I thought the cheese coloured with it, was higher flavoured ; this might have been owing to other causes.” Source: The BALANCE, and Columbian repository, Volume 5, For 1806 By Ezra Sampson, George Chittenden, Harry Croswell p. 260-261

“The practice of coloring cheese and butter, we think, should be discouraged; who would thank a milk man to color his milk?” Source: The New England Farmer, and Horticultural Journal, July 13, 1831, Vol. 9, No. 52, 409.


The milk strained in large tubs over night; the cream stirred in milk, and in morning strained in same tub; milk heated to natural heat; add color and rennet; curd broke fine and whey off, and broke fine in hoop with fast bottom, and put in strainer; pressed twelve hours; then taken from hoop, and salt rubbed on the surface; then put in hoop, without strainer, and pressed forty-eight hours; then put on tables, and salt rubbed on surface, and remain in salt six days, for cheese weighing thirty pounds. The crushings are saved, and set and churned, to grease the cheese. The above method is for making one cheese per day.
Cooperstown, January, 1842.”

Page 428

Cheshire Cheese.—This cheese is famous for its rich quality and fine piquant flavor. It is made of entire new milk, the cream not being taken off. The cheeses are generally of very large size, usually about sixty pounds weight, and some have been made of one, or even two, hundred weight. Each cheese is- usually made of the produce of one day’s milking, from herds of from one to two hundred cows, who feed in rich pastures on some of the finest land in England. Their excellence must be attributed to the goodness of the milk, their size and age, and the skill employed in their manufacture. The color is not entirely natural; but a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots. It is said, that some increase the richness and mellowness of the cheese by adding beef-suet, or any other wholesome and sweet fat well clarified, which is poured into and mixed with the curd.”

Source: The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Hand-book: Being a Full and Complete Guide for the Farmer and the Emigrant. Comprising the Clearing of Forest and Prairie Land Gardening—farming Generally—farriery Cookery—and the Prevention and Cure of Diseases. With Copious Hints, Recipes, and Tables.; By Josiah T. Marshall, Author of the Emigrant’s True Guide.
Second Edition, Revised.; Publisher: Appleton, 1845

“Previously to commencing the process of making cheese, besides the milk, two materials must be ready for use—the rennet for coagulating the milk, and the substance for colouring the cheese, if the latter is to be employed.
The colouring of cheese is a general custom, but not a necessary operation ; annatto is chiefly employed for this purpose. The usual mode of application, is to dip a piece of the requisite weight in a bowl of milk, and rub it on a smooth stone, until the milk assumes a deep red colour. This infusion without the sediment, which Is separated by standing a little, is to be added to the milk of which cheese is intended to be made, in such quantity as will impart to the whole a bright orange colour. The addition of annatto In no way effects the smell or taste.”

“CHEESE, BRITISH PARMESAN. — Heat the day’s milk to a temperature of from seventy-five to seventy-seven degrees, and after it has settled, put in the rennet. When it has stood for an hour or more, place the coagulated milk on a slow clear fire, and heat it till thecurd separates of itself. When separated, throw in cold water to reduce the temperature, and quickly collect the curd in a cloth, gathering it up at the corners. When drained. Dress it as other cheese. Next day it will be firm enough to turn. Let it dry slowly and gradually, often (at first about every hour) changing the wrapping-cloths. Rub it with a little salt daily, for three weeks, or plunge it in pickle for a few days. The curd for this, or any other cheese, may be coloured with a little saffron, or annatto, by putting a tincture of them, extracted in milk, to the milk when to be curdled.” Source: The dictionary of daily wants By Robert Kemp Philp, 1866

“The American cheeses are the Pineapple, which is double the price of ordinary cheese, imitations of English Dairy, American Factory, and California cheese, which is only about half the weight and thickness of Eastern, and instead of being incased in a round wooden box like the Eastern, is handled loose or naked in the wholesale market. None of the American cheeses are classed among strong cheeses. They are good all the year round. The foreign varieties, or equally as good American imitations, may all be had in the larger cities, while excellent, if not the best, American factory cheese is obtainable everywhere. Sage cheese is made by the addition of bruised sage leaves to the curd, which imparts a greenish color and a flavor liked by many. Cream cheese is not properly a cheese, although so called, but is simply cream dried sufficiently to be cut with a knife. Cheese from milk and potatoes is manufactured in Thuringia and Saxony. Cheese may be had in small, round shapes, brickbats, the thin California cheeses, etc., as well as shaped in the ordinary large round hoop, or by the pound therefrom. All cheese, except the foreign skim-milk makes, contains more or less coloring matter, principally annatto, turmeric, or marigold, all perfectly harmless unless they are adulterated.”

“To make a plain family cream cheese, take three half pints milk to one-half pint cream, warm it and put in a little rennet; keep it covered in a warm place till it is curdled ; put the curds into the colander on a cloth to drain about an hour, serve with good plain cream and pounded sugar over it. To color, pound fresh sage leaves in a mortar to obtain the juice, and mix it with the milk while warm after the rennet is put in. Spinach juice is an improvement.”

Source: The new practical housekeeping: A compilation of new, choice and carefully tested recipes; 1890

Mary Miley says:
May 27, 2013 at 7:52 am (Edit)
Wow, thanks Deanna. Interesting reading, especially the pre-Civil War references.

What do you think?



3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 111: Orange dye was added to American cheese during the Civil War to differentiate between Northern-made cheese and Southern.

  1. Mary – love your information and your book. This whole discussion brought back a memory from my youth – coloring a bag of margarine. For a period of time – probably late 1940’s, my mother gave me, as the oldest child, the delightful task of popping the color pack inside what was probably a plastic bag of lard and squishing it for a long time to distribute it through the white mass. Does anyone else remember the time before margarine came already colored?

    • Mary Miley says:

      Your mother must be about the same age as mine. I’ve heard this story as well. Evidently early margarine looked so unappealing that they used coloring in it, but laws (esp. in Wisconsin) didn’t allow manufacturers to do that–to protect the butter industry–so companies put a packet of food coloring in the package.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      My father has mentioned that.

      I find it interesting that he lived on a small dairy farm (approx. a dozen milk cows) and they used margerine in preference to butter, whilst my mother’s parents had a horse ‘farm’ (racing stable) and would never think to use anything but butter.

      My father’s mother had an old-fashioned wooden hand churn that she, Dad and his sister would use to make butter that they traded to neighbors for various things the neighbors had in excess.

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