Color Me Delicious: How Food’s Hue Affects Its Taste
Allison Ford | Divine Caroline
Anyone who doubts that a food’s color affects how it tastes probably wasn’t alive in the early ’90s to witness one of the most infamous gustatory debacles in history. Intellectually, it’s easy to think that the color of a food shouldn’t affect how it tastes, but that was proven false when Crystal Pepsi hit the market. Except for its lack of caramel coloring, it was just like regular Pepsi. It should have tasted exactly the same, but it didn’t. Consumers couldn’t get past the odd juxtaposition of flavor and taste, and the feeling that something was just off. The gimmicky soda was an abject failure, destined to be inducted into the Bad Idea Hall of Fame.
We know that our sense of taste is very closely tied to our sense of smell, but it’s also tied to our sense of sight. Humans expect their food to look a certain way, and when food has a surprising or incongruous color, our brains convince us that it tastes different, too. Color may not directly affect how a food tastes, but it definitely affects how we perceive the taste.
What About Green Eggs and Ham?
Added colorings are ubiquitous, and not just in the obvious processed or packaged foods—they show up in fresh foods, too. According to the FDA, colorings are added to food for a variety of reasons. Sometimes pigment is added to offset color loss that occurs in the manufacturing process or from the product’s exposure to light or temperature, which is why farmed salmon’s naturally gray meat is usually dyed to match the pink hue of wild-caught fish. Some manufacturers add color to keep a product standardized; butter naturally ranges from white to dark yellow, but most producers color it light yellow because that’s what consumers have come to expect. Some foods undergo colorization to enhance their natural pigments, such as oranges that are dyed a more vivid shade. Lastly, foods can be dyed to provide color to processed-food products that are normally colorless. Maraschino cherries wouldn’t be red, cola would not have its telltale brown color, and most of the food in the center aisles of the grocery store would look quite different if it weren’t for added colorings.
Color can have pronounced effects on our appetites as well. In Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser wrote about a famous study in the 1970s that examined the effects of food color on taste. Participants in the study were seated in a room where they were offered steak and french fries. Unbeknownst to them, the room was rigged with special lighting that affected the color of the food. Although the plate looked normal in the special lighting, the researchers eventually revealed that the steak had been dyed blue and the French fries were green. Upon seeing the sickly colored food, many participants in the study immediately lost their appetite. When the food was an improbable color, it seemed significantly less appetizing.
In March 2007, the Journal of Consumer Research published a study that found that the color of a beverage also greatly influenced how people interpreted its taste. Researchers offered the subjects orange juice—some of which had been colored, and some of which had been artificially sweetened. When people compared the colored orange juice with regular orange juice, they believed that it tasted different, even though the taste had not been altered. However, when participants were asked to compare the taste of the regular juice to that of the sweetened juice, they couldn’t tell the difference, because they were the same color.