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.
Food scientists have known for years that color dictates how we perceive taste, and that people expect certain colors to reflect certain tastes. For example, we expect yellow to taste tart, like citrus, and red to taste spicy. When a manufacturer is trying to subtly encourage a specific flavor, the easiest way to do that is to give the food a particular color. If a product’s color does not correspond with its flavor, consumers get confused. In a 1995 study published in the Journal of Food Science, participants could not identify the flavor of a drink if it did not correspond with the “appropriate” color. For example, they could not identify grape flavor if the drink was colored red; instead, they thought it was cherry or some other “red” taste. The participants in this study reported that drinks with stronger colors had stronger tastes, regardless of the beverage’s actual flavor concentration, and that the drinks with strong colors also tasted better than drinks with weak colors.
Another study (from 1983) in the Journal of Food Science found that foods were judged to have a stronger and more powerful aroma when they were colored, as compared with versions of the foods without added color. The precise hue of the food was important, too: participants disliked foods that were either too colored or not colored enough, instead preferring foods that had enough coloring to be bright and appetizing, but not so much that they looked artificial.
Taste the Rainbow
The way we experience taste is intricately wrapped up in how food looks, feels, and smells, long before it ever makes it to our mouths. Without the proper visual cues, it’s almost as if flavor itself has no context. To some, the thought of injecting color into naturally colorless fish or dying maraschino cherries may sound nauseating, but food companies take their products very seriously, and they know that even though consumers express general dislike for the idea of chemical additives, they also have very specific expectations about the foods they consume. Most people would overwhelmingly prefer pink salmon meat to gray, and people are more likely to buy key lime–flavored sweets if they’re dyed green. I may think I’m opposed to food coloring, but in my cocktails, I know that a pale and colorless maraschino cherry just wouldn’t taste the same.