Is yellow sweet like a banana or sour like a lemon? From casual observations of our own eating we know that the visual 'taste' of food can be just as important as the ingredients in a dish. But how much does your internalized color and food associations - the ones we started developing from the very first time we saw our mothers' arm reach across and place before us a dark green round leafy Brussels sprout - impact what you are tasting now, and how are food producers exploiting this information to influence consumers?
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Some recent research might make you think twice about what you are tasting, and whether or not you might just be seeing a difference.
Food Color Research
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research entitled, Taste Perception: More than Meets the Tongue:
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."
Given two cups of the same Tropicana orange juice, with one cup darkened with food coloring, the members of the researcher's sample group perceived differences in taste that did not exist. However, when given two cups of orange juice that were the same color, with one cup sweetened with sugar, the same people failed to perceive taste differences.
"It seems unlikely that our consumers deliberately eschewed taste for color as a basis for discrimination," write the authors. "Moreover, our consumers succumbed to the influence of color but were less influenced by the powerful lure of brand and price information."
Meaning, people thought the orange juice tasted different when there was no actual taste difference just because it was a slightly different color, but when the color remained the same, and the actual taste was changed, people didn't taste a difference.
More Food Color Research
During one experiment in the early 1970s people were served an oddly tinted meal of steak and french fries that appeared normal beneath colored lights. Everyone thought the meal tasted fine until the lighting was changed. Once it became apparent that the steak was actually blue and the fries were green, some people became ill.
Studies have found that the color of a food can greatly affect how its taste is perceived. Brightly colored foods frequently seem to taste better than bland-looking foods, even when the flavor compounds are identical. Foods that somehow look off-color often seem to have off tastes. For thousands of years human beings have relied on visual cues to help determine what is edible. The color of fruit suggests whether it is ripe, the color of meat whether it is rancid. Flavor researchers sometimes use colored lights to modify the influence of visual cues during taste tests.
-Excerpt taken from Erice Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation
Examples of Food That Probably Shouldn't Be the Color It Is
I think my first experience with Crystal Pepsi went something like this: "Alright Pepsi has a new lemon lime soda! Oh, wait! Why does it taste like cola!? Weird."
The last time I saw a cow produce bright yellow milk was when I wondered off from Woodstock into a neighboring farm. There I met a sociable hen named Margery who introduced me to that magical and mysterious milk cow.
And any other highly processed food targeted towards the most rational of consumers, children. But the bright colors do make it more exciting.
- Check out these previous food color posts:
Color Guide to Staying Healthy and Eating Right
Wonders of the Food Coloring World