Science Questions

How does colour affect food?

Tue, 19th May 2015

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Timire asked:

Is there a relationship between the influence of colour when it comes to food and what children think, taste and say when we change the colour of everyday food?



We put Timire's question to Max Sanderson, and he had this to say:

Kat - Why do we not want to eat blue peas or something? What do you reckon, Max?

 Max - Well, the whole blue thing, actually, I was doing a bit of reading about that and the argument was that there's nothing blue that occurs in nature and therefore, people donít want to eat blue food substances. But I think when Skittles or Smarties came out with the blue sweet and fun, it was actually popular. So, I donít think itís as much the colour in itself, but itís the association that we give between the colour and the food. And so, sort of taste and flavours often being Ė you know, if you think about the two senses that immediately spring to mind, theyíre sort of taste and smell. And so, people are realising that the perception of flavour is sort of more multi-sensory they may have thought and obviously, vision is one of those things. Colour back in the day wouldíve led us to a poisonous berry or the ripeness of a fruit or the safety of an old piece of meat. But, I think when it comes to sort of associations, we want something to taste how we expect it to, based on vision. And so, like you're saying, why someone want to eat a blue pea, in the 1970s, they did a quite famous and actually, quite cruel study where they brought in subjects to eat French fries and steak and they appeared normal, but actually, they were sort of special engineered lights to make them look normal. And actually, halfway through the meal, after all the subjects have said they're having a rather nice time, they sort of turn on the normal lights to reveal that the steak was actually blue and the French fries were green. Upon doing that, apparently, some people ran to the toilet and got sick. And so I think, when it comes to colour and food, itís the association. So, there've been lots of studies where they sort of take a cherry flavoured drink, they dye it orange and people sort of taste an orange flavoured drink. Wine sommeliers, they managed to trick them into sort of thinking that a white wine was red.

Chris - Thatís quite common isnít it, Max when that happens because there's quite an easy experiment you can do where you just pour two glasses of white wine or whatever and you tell people that one is red and one is white and kind of tell the difference. They're identical and they all fall for it.

Max - Yeah and I mean, itís one thing doing it to your mate on a Friday night, but the fact that theyíve managed to do it to wine sommeliers was quite an interesting one. They also even found that the way that they described two white wines was dependent on the sort of lighting of the room. And so, I think colour in food is very important because it sort of gives us these associations and we expect something to taste how it looks and the fact that when you sort of trick these associations, you see how important they are. And I think even the packaging has been shown to, so I mean, this is something people could try at home if you put some salt and vinegar crisps in a cheese and onion packet and give it to a mate or give it to mum or dad and see if they manage to pick up on it. But studies have shown that just by changing the packaging, you can actually change the flavour somewhat.

Chris - Well, they did make stale food taste fresh by putting headphones on people, feeding them off crisps, the crisps that have gone all soft and playing the crunching noises when the people were eating the stale crisps and they thought they were fresh because your brain sort of integrates the crinkly-ness. Thatís why the packets are sort of crinkly and so those packets of crisps when you open them, they make loads of noise because when you make that nice crinkly noise, itís a sort of an association your brain makes. Fresh things tend to be ripe and turgid, and sort of crunchy. And therefore, your brains says, ďAh! It must be fresh.Ē And so, it sort of transfers and makes the food taste fresher than perhaps it is.

Max - Yeah. I mean apparently, a lot of these sort of food companies have sound engineering departments who actually try and sort of design ways to make food sound even nicer in the same way that people will do the same with packaging and drinks and so, I think itís something the food industry is also aware of. So, word of warning, we are all being exploited every single day by the food industry because theyíve sort of tapped into our brain.

Kat - Oh well, there you go....


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