Remember that grumpy fellow from Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham"? The one who refused to taste that breakfast offered by Sam-I-Am? You probably sympathized with the grump because those eggs were -- undoubtedly -- green. Of course all ends well, as the fellow eventually discovers he likes green eggs and ham. A fantastical tale, but not that far from the truth, because color can influence how people expect food to taste.
Color as Repellant
In one of the most amusing experiments about color and food, researchers prepared blue steak and green fries -- oddly reminiscent of green eggs and ham -- for a group of study participants. The blue and green color, created thanks to the addition of food coloring, was hidden from the participants through the use of special lighting that drowned out the strange uses of this unusual feast. In other words, the food appeared normal -- at first. When researchers switched to normal lighting and the diners realized they'd been duped into eating discolored food, some people became ill. However, the food was perfectly healthy and fit to eat -- just oddly colored. The findings were referenced by Carlos Magoulas at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, suggesting that people have preconceived ideas about how foods should be colored. Odd or surprising colors might send signals to your brain that suggest the food is not pleasant or, at worst, unsafe.
While colors might turn you against foods, subtle color changes may also lead you to think a food is tasty. In an attempt to figure out how to make low-fat cheese tasty to the general public -- not an easy task, as low-fat and fat-free cheeses aren't known for their flavor -- researchers at Utah State University brought together trained tasters and consumers, asking each group to rate the likability, flavor, chewiness and sharpness of a variety of low-fat cheddar cheeses. It turned out that the color of the cheese significantly altered how much the participants liked the products. Cheeses that looked too white or translucent received lower rankings than deeply colored cheeses. Yet richly colored low-fat cheese was perceived as tastier.
Marketers have played with the idea of creating oddly colored foods, sometimes with less-than-desirable sales results. One ketchup producer tried an array of colors for its ketchup -- ranging from pink to purple -- but soon discontinued the product because it wasn't winning over the public. Consumers thought the new ketchup tasted different, despite the fact that the company had changed nothing about the flavor. Since food coloring is tasteless, the only explanation for this phenomenon is that the color of the ketchup changed the way people perceived its flavor. In a similar marketing snafu, a well-known beverage producer discontinued a short-lived marketing ploy to launch a clear-colored soda that tasted like regular cola. Sales fell short after consumers reported a lemon-lime taste in the product. However, absolutely no lemon or lime flavor had been added to alter the cola flavor.
So yes, people do use color cues to determine the flavor of a food -- sometimes in utter contrast with reality. These differences can be subtle. For example, changing the amount of coloring in a food probably won't make you think a food has bold, intense flavor -- you are unlikely to think a deep red cherry drink tastes stronger than a lightly hued variety. But countless studies since the 1960s have suggested that people expect red drinks to taste like cherry or strawberry rather than, say, grapefruit or lime. And that's based entirely on what the eyes see, not what the tongue tastes. One of the classic studies published in the "Journal of Chemical Senses" in 1974, showed that adding red color to a drink made people perceive it as sweeter and, inexplicably, made it difficult to perceive bitter flavor in the beverage. Apparently, adding yellow decreases your perception of a drink's sugariness. And adding green increases your perception of its sourness.
- How Color Affects Food Choices; Costa Magoulas
- Journal of Dairy Science: Color of Low-Fat Cheese Influences Flavor Perception and Consumer Liking
- Chemical Perception: Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception
Christine McKnelly is a writer and registered dietitian working as her state's coordinator for the Governor's Council on Fitness. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including the "Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture," the "Arkansas Democrat-Gazette" and "Monday Escapes" online travel magazine. In 2011, her narrative essay, "Should Have Gone To Annandale" placed among the top 10 finalists in Leap Local's international travel writing contest.