Studies have shown that most consumers taste with their eyes. We think a cheese tastes best when it’s a deep yellow or a vivid orange color. This plant influences what goes in your mouth, and it’s been doing that for longer than you’d imagine.

The achiote tree grows in Central and South America. Its seeds are a deep, vivid red. This red color has made it into everything from body paint to lipstick, and it has done so because of a very important property. Achiote is completely safe to consume. Ground into powder, these seeds are peppery, with a slight nutmeg scent to them. They’re regularly mixed with other spices and made into a paste to flavor regional dishes. Not only does it give the dish a mild and pleasant flavor, the yellow-orange color makes the food look especially rich and appetizing.

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This quality was not lost on food manufacturers. Annatto, the pigment made from achiote, is one of the staple additives of the cheese industry. The pigment is a carotenoid like beta carotene, but unlike beta carotene, the body doesn’t convert it into vitamin A. It’s neither good for you nor bad for you — unless you count conning you into eating inferior cheese as being bad for you. But isn’t that just typical of the modern cheese industry?

As it turns out, no. Annatto is one of the most traditional ingredients in cheese-making. It has certainly been used for hundreds of years. Some believe that British cheesemakers started using it as far back as the 1500s. Certain cheeses, like Gloucester cheese, took on a bright orange hue during the summer months when cows ate fresh grass rich in carotene. This orange summer cheese was the most coveted kind of cheese. Adding just a little annatto could make pale winter cheese look like summer cheese, and allowed the cheese merchants to sell winter cheese at higher prices.

Today, few cows eat seasonally, but we still like our cheese filled with annatto. Ah! Tastes like tradition!

Top Image: Leonardo Ré-Jorge