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What color is American cheese orange or yellow?

American cheese, that bright neon slices found on burgers and sandwiches across the country, provokes strong reactions for its vivid color and mild flavor. While some love its melted gooeyness on a grilled cheese, others deride it as an unnatural processed food product. But artificial or not, there’s no denying that classic American cheese has an iconic orangey-yellow hue.

The Origins of American Cheese

The invention of American cheese dates back to the early 20th century. In 1911, James L. Kraft applied for a patent for a method of making cheese slices by shredding cheddar cheese, blending it with emulsifiers like sodium phosphate, and re-forming it into a smooth solid block. This process resulted in a cheese product with a longer shelf-life and more consistent texture for mass production compared to traditional cheeses.

Kraft’s new pasteurized prepared cheese slices were an instant hit when they debuted to the public in 1950 under the brand name Kraft Singles. The bright orange color was part of its appeal, distinguishing it from traditional white cheddar. Though original Kraft Singles were dyed with annatto, a natural food coloring made from seeds of the achiote tree, most modern American cheese uses carotene, vitamin A, or paprika to achieve that eye-catching orangey shade.

The Real Color of American Cheese

So what color is American cheese really? The underlying base of American cheese is a blend of milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, and salt. Without added colorings, this cheese base would have a pale off-white or yellowish natural color, similar to other young cheddar or Colby cheeses. The vibrant orange hue comes strictly from the food colorings.

Cheese Type Natural Color
Cheddar Pale yellow to yellow-orange
Colby Pale yellow
Monterey Jack White to pale yellow
American Cheese White to pale yellow

Young cheddar cheeses tend to be lighter, while older aged cheddars develop a deeper golden orange rind. The yellow hue comes from the milkfat in the cheese. But no natural cheese has coloration as vibrant as neon orange American cheese!

Why is American Cheese Dyed Orange?

Adding bright orange food coloring to American cheese serves a few purposes:

  • Distinguishes it from other natural cheese varieties
  • Maintains a uniform appearance batch to batch
  • Makes it more visually appealing as an ingredient
  • Provides a signature color that brands like Kraft have trademarked

When orange cheese slices first hit the market, they stood out from the mild yellow of traditional cheese. The color was part of branding it as a fun, new, processed cheese product. Over the years, the orange hue has become an iconic part of American cheese’s identity and recognition. Even though some brands now offer white American cheese, orange remains the expected default.

Does Coloring Affect the Taste?

Interestingly, the artificial coloring has no impact on American cheese’s actual flavor or texture. The dyes like anatto, paprika, and vitamin A add vibrant visual appeal but no discernible taste. Some brands use annatto because it imparts a slightly sweet, peppery flavor in large quantities, but the amounts used in cheese are minimal. Ultimately, American cheese would taste the same bright orange, pale yellow, or white.

Nutrition & Health Concerns

While the coloring agents used to make American cheese orange are natural derived and FDA-approved, there are some health concerns around excessive consumption. Here’s a look at some of the nutritional aspects and potential issues with eating vibrant orange American cheese:

Vitamin A

One of the main food colorings used today is vitamin A palmitate. This saturated form of vitamin A gives American cheese an orange/yellow color. While vitamin A is an essential nutrient, high doses can cause toxicity symptoms like nausea, liver damage, and bone abnormalities.


Annatto is a natural food dye extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree. It contains antioxidants but can also trigger allergic reactions, especially in people with latex allergies. Annatto may also contain trace levels of insect parts or rat hairs.

LDL Oxidation

A 2012 study found that artificial food coloring like annatto may increase oxidative damage to LDL cholesterol, increasing risk of heart disease. More research is still needed.


Studies on food dyes impact on hyperactivity in children have been inconclusive. But hyperactivity is often cited as a concern with artificial food coloring.

Overall, eating American cheese in moderation is likely not problematic for most people. But those consuming it daily or in high amounts may want to monitor their intake of fat, sodium, and food colorings.

Differences Between White & Yellow American Cheese

These days, you can find American cheese in white, yellow, or orange shades. Here’s how these varieties differ:

Type Color Flavor Texture
White American White to pale yellow Mild Soft, creamy
Yellow American Light yellow Mild Soft, creamy
Orange American Orange Mild Soft, creamy

The main difference is simply the color. Uncolored white American has no added dyes. Yellow American has a small amount of annatto or yellow dye. And orange American has higher amounts of dye like annatto, paprika, or turmeric to achieve that vibrant color.

Flavor, meltability, and texture remain largely the same across the different shades. The color variation allows consumers to choose whether they want the traditional neon orange or a more natural off-white cheese.

Popular Brands of Orange American Cheese

Some of the most popular brands of orange American cheese slices and singles include:

  • Kraft – Kraft Singles is the classic orange American cheese. First introduced in 1950, it remains one of the most recognizable cheese brands.
  • Land O’Lakes – Their American cheese line comes in orange, yellow, and white varieties.
  • Sargento – Sargento Sliced Cheese features orange, yellow, and white American cheese options.
  • Boar’s Head – Boar’s Head makes traditional orange American cheese sold as singles and 5-pound deli loaves.
  • Borden – Borden American cheese slices come in orange and yellow varieties.
  • Kaukauna – Kaukauna Klub Singles are orange American cheese slices.
  • Cracker Barrel – Cracker Barrel sharp and extra sharp American cheese slices have a bold orange color.

Major cheese producers like Kraft, Sargento, and Land O’Lakes also offer white American cheese without color additives. But their classic orange American remains popular in stores.

Uses for Orange Colored American Cheese

The melty, creamy quality of orange American cheese makes it a popular choice for cooking, including:

  • Cheeseburgers
  • Grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Quesadillas
  • Pizza
  • Casseroles like tuna noodle casserole
  • Fried cheese sticks and nuggets
  • Nachos
  • Tex-Mex dishes like tacos
  • Appetizers like mini cheese balls

Its bright color makes it visually appealing melted over dishes. The uniform consistency when melted also gives dishes like grilled cheese a smooth texture. While some may see it as an inferior processed cheese, American cheese melts superbly compared to natural cheeses.

Is Orange Cheese Bad for You?

American cheese gets a bad rap as an overprocessed imitation cheese. And its bright neon color certainly gives it an artificial vibe. However, there are no inherently toxic chemicals or ingredients in orange cheese slices. In moderation, American cheese can be part of a balanced diet. Some of its potential health impacts include:

  • High in sodium, which can increase blood pressure
  • Contains saturated fat that should be limited
  • Often lacks protein, vitamins, and minerals found in natural cheeses
  • Includes preservatives like sorbic acid that may irritate digestive systems
  • May contain traces of annatto or other food dyes that rarely trigger allergic reactions

The high amounts of sodium and saturated fat can be drawbacks to eating a lot of orange American cheese regularly. But overall, it is not toxic or dangerous in reasonable amounts. Those with food dye allergies or avoiding preservatives may want to limit consumption or choose white American cheese.

Is American Cheese Real Cheese?

American cheese is technically considered a “process cheese.” Natural cheese is processed along with emulsifiers, extra dairy proteins, and food coloring into the final uniform product.

So while American cheese starts with real cheese like cheddar or colby, the additions and processing differentiate it from regular cheeses. According to FDA standardized identity rules, American cheese cannot be legally labeled as “cheese” and is defined as “pasteurized process cheese.”

For those seeking actual cheese, be sure to read labels and choose varieties labeled cheese, not “process cheese product.” Real cheeses like cheddar, swiss, and gouda have only milk, enzymes, and salt as ingredients.

Interesting Facts About Orange American Cheese

  • Original Kraft American Cheese Singles had less saturated fat than most natural cheeses when they debuted in the 1950s.
  • Early American cheese slices were called “Kraft’s New York Cheese” but later renamed American cheese as they expanded across the country.
  • Over 450 million pounds of American cheese are produced annually in the United States.
  • The color orange is associated with cheese due to the annatto plant-based dye used to give cheddars their yellowish hue.
  • In most states, including Wisconsin, colored and white American cheese cannot be sold as “cheese” and must be labeled “process cheese.”
  • National Grilled Cheese Day on April 12th boosts sales of American cheese as people celebrate with the classic sandwich.
  • Orange colored cheeses were historically viewed as inferior, unnatural copies of traditional cheeses. But they became an American favorite in the 1950s and 60s.
  • According to Kraft, 70% of households nationwide have Kraft Singles American cheese in their refrigerators.
  • American cheese is often criticized by cheese purists for being overprocessed and unnatural. However, it melts extremely well compared to regular cheeses.


American cheese’s bright orange color may not naturally occur in regular cheese, but it has become an iconic part of its identity and popularity. Though some may see it as artificial and unhealthy, American cheese is safe in moderation and undeniably melty and consistent in cooking. The coloring adds familiarity and widespread appeal to an already versatile process cheese.

So whether you love it or loathe it, there’s no denying the strong impressions orange American cheese slices provoke thanks to their distinctive look. The next time you see that vivid orange cheese on a burger or grilled cheese, you’ll know it’s not quite the natural cheddar color it mimics, but a purposeful color modification that makes it uniquely American.