Sensing Food: The Role of Color

Stephen DeAngelis

September 19, 2013

Back in the fall of 2000, three researchers, Lawrence L. Garber, Jr., Eva M. Hyatt, and Richard G. Starr, Jr., conducted a study on “The Effects of Food Color on Perceived Flavor.” [Journal of Marketing, Fall 2000] Their conclusion was, “Food color’s principal use is for flavor identification, not for strategic marketing communication purposes.” They went on to write:

“There has been surprisingly little color research in marketing, and the impact of food color has been completely neglected outside of the food sciences; unfortunate, because marketers understand so little of the powerful yet complex effects of color at the point of purchase. Though food scientists have empirically examined aspects of the effects of food color, research on the topic remains sparse, is not theory-based, and, as a body, is limited.”

Frankly, that statement surprised me. Food coloring has been around for a long, long time. Peggy Trowbridge Filippone reports:

“Ancient Romans used saffron and other spices to put a rich yellow color into various foods. Other natural foods such as carrots, pomegranates, grapes, mulberries, spinach, beets, parsley, and flowers were also used as food coloring agents. Our ancestors also used minerals and ores, such as azure (copper carbonate), gold leaf, and silver leaf, some of which were downright poisonous if used improperly. Elise Fleming researched cookbooks dating as far back as 1390 A.D., and has compiled an interesting list of food additives used hundreds of years ago with charming quotes in Olde English from sources in her informative treatise on the food coloring of yesteryear.” [“Food Coloring History,” About.com]

Certainly there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that food color affects taste. For a quick, but interesting report on the subject, click on this link to watch a short ABC story on the subject. During a study conducted a few years ago, “researchers found that color was more of an influence on how taste was perceived than quality or price information.” [“More Than Meets The Tongue: Color Of A Drink Can Fool The Taste Buds Into Thinking It Is Sweeter,” Science Daily, 16 February 2007] The article claims that JoAndrea Hoegg, from University of British Columbia, and Joseph W. Alba, from the University of Florida, “are the first to look at how individual attributes — such as color, price, or brand — can affect which products we prefer.” The article continues:

“The researchers manipulated orange juice by changing color (with food coloring), sweetness (with sugar), or by labeling the cups with brand and quality information. They found that though brand name influenced people’s preferences for one cup of juice over another, labeling one cup a premium brand and the other an inexpensive store brand had no effect on perceptions of taste. In contrast, the tint of the orange juice had a huge effect on the taster’s perceptions of taste. As the authors put it: ‘Color dominated taste.'”

An article on the Konica Minolta website states, “While many of us like to believe that we are not easily deceived, our sense of taste is often fooled by our sense of sight. This is because humans have certain expectations of how food should look. When a food’s color is off or is different than what we expect, our brain tells us that it tastes different too. Long supported by scientific studies, we use visual cues from color to identify and judge the quality and taste of what we eat.” The article goes to report on the results of an experiment conducted some 40 years ago:

“Published in Fast Food Nation, a more extreme study dating back to the early 1970s offers some insight into how color affects our appetite and perception of food. Subjects in the experiment were served what appeared to be a normal looking plate of steak and french fries. The room, however, was installed with specialty lighting that changed how the color of the food looked. Under this lighting effect, the participants thought the steak and fries tasted fine. Once the effects were turned off and lighting was returned to normal, it was revealed that the steak was dyed a blue color and the french fries were dyed a green color. Upon seeing this, many of the subjects lost their appetite and some became ill.”

Another group of researchers, Charles Spence, Carmel Levitan, Maya U. Shankar, and Massimiliano Zampini, believe that there are “two qualitatively distinct research questions” involved in how color affects the taste of food. [“Does food color influence taste and flavor perception in humans?,” Selected Works of Carmel Levitan, 2010] They explain:

“The first concerns the role that food coloring plays in the perception of the intensity of a particular flavor (e.g., strawberry, banana, etc.) or taste attribute (e.g., sweetness, saltiness, etc.). The second concerns the role that food coloring plays in the perception of flavor identity.”

Some new age chefs are making a good living playing around with people senses by making food look like one thing and taste like another. However, as the ABC story highlighted, the most significant effect that color has on food is the perception it makes on taste attributes. An article from Techdirt reports, “There’s one argument, which says that if you’re eating food that needs to be colored, you’re not eating food.” Proponents of that argument point to so-called junk food to support their case. An experiment using uncolored Cheetos, which are naturally gray in color, found that consumers who ate them claimed that “their brains did not register much cheese flavor.”

It’s not just the color of food that changes our perception of taste or preferability; the color of dinnerware and packaging can also have an effect. Jessica Hullinger reports, “New research from the Journal of Sensory Studies says different colored cups can affect the perceived flavor of beverages. ‘The color of the container where food and drink are served can enhance some attributes like taste and aroma,’ said study co-author Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, a researcher at the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.” [“How Your Cup’s Color Changes the Taste of Your Drink,” mental_floss, 7 January 2013] And the editorial staff at FoodBusinessNews, report, “It turns out the source of Hillshire Brands’ packaged lunchmeat problems was the product’s clear lid. By switching from the clear lid to a more pronounced red cap, the company has managed to start to turn the business around.” [“Hillshire learns red means go,” 12 August 2013] Sean Connolly, Hillshire’s chief executive officer, told a group of financial analysts, “While consumers consistently articulated a preference for the clear lid in numerous quantitative tests, their actual purchase behavior noticeably changed when we made the switch. As we dug into the disconnect between what consumers were saying and what they were doing, it became clear there was a positive benefit to the red lid that the consumer could not articulate.”

Because we are sometimes unable to articulate why we behave differently than we think we do, I believe that Big Data analytics has a significant role to play in the world of sensory services. There is an interplay between all of our senses that affects how we perceive the world around us and how we enjoy the products we use. To learn more about how the senses affect taste, read my post entitled Enjoying Food: Taste, and Our Other Senses.