The colour of a food directly influences our perception of it — in more ways than one.
Thanks to our genes, we’re naturally drawn to brightly coloured foods, because bright colour is a sign that fruit is ripe and meat is fresh.
Modern food manufacturers are aware of this, of course, which means that many processed foods sport vibrant colours. Products that target kids often resemble a rainbow, as children are far more likely to base their food choices on colour than on cost or nutritional value.
Colour can even affect our impression of a food’s flavour. In a 2007 US-university study, subjects were given two cups of the same orange juice, one of which was a brighter orange. After drinking both juices, they claimed that the brighter juice actually tasted sweeter.
Other research reveals that we struggle to eat food when it’s the ‘wrong’ colour. In one famous study from the 1970s, researchers gave subjects a meal of steak and hot chips in a room with special lighting. When the lighting switched back to normal, and subjects realised that the steak was blue and the chips were green, some of them became physically ill. Why? Nature offers us very few blue foods, so we may subliminally associate this colour with mouldy or rotten food.
As a food technologist, I’ve helped develop products that contain both food colouring and other coloured foods. My colleagues and I once used a mixture of minced carrot and concentrated orange juice to enhance a pumpkin soup’s bright orange colour. On a separate occasion, we had to make a cooked beef pattie look and taste just like minced bacon, so we added not only a bacon flavour, but also a pink bacon-like colour.
Today, some manufacturers of brightly coloured foods, such as lollies and breakfast cereals, make these foods’ individual pieces in assorted colours for a visual appeal that also gives the impression of variety. Although your eyes tell you that these pieces must taste different, they actually taste exactly the same.
So next time you’re eating coloured cereal or sweets, close your eyes. You’ll probably be unable to detect any difference in flavour among the various pieces. In one sense, they aren’t showing their true colours!
Australian law requires food manufacturers to name food colourings on product labels, so check ingredients lists if you have any concerns.