The Impact of Color on Perceived Taste and Quality of Food

November 15, 2023

For Mr. I, tomato juice is black. He knows it’s not really black, but he can’t see it any other way, even in his mind. In An Anthropologist on Mars, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells the story of Mr. I, a painter who developed cerebral achromatopsia, or the inability to perceive color, following a car crash. For Mr. 1, Black tomatoes don’t taste right, so he closes his eyes and imagines biting into a ripe, red tomato, trying to erase the visual variable. “But this did not help very much,” Sacks writes, “for the mental image of a tomato was as black as its appearance.”

And tomatoes weren’t the only trouble; any foods that didn’t match the colors he remembered from before the accident were unappetizing and no matter how he tried to visualize that he was eating an orange orange or a yellow banana, his brain refused to believe him. In the end, he decided that he would eat only foods that matched his memories, leaving him with a black and white diet that would include plain but not strawberry yogurt, black but not green olives.

Most of us naturally understand that color impacts our perception of foods. After all, we constantly evaluate foods based on their hue, from checking if the meat is still red to guessing an avocado is ripe when its skin becomes dark green. But color does more than alert us to physical or chemical changes in food; it also deeply impacts how we taste them and, sometimes, even if we taste them. Color is so powerful that it can override what our other senses are telling us to be true, causing us to taste sweetness that isn’t really there, experience flavors that aren’t present, and accept or reject foods simply based on their shade. By understanding the profound effect of color on gustatory experiences, food manufacturers can gain richer insight into consumer expectations and the importance of creating and monitoring the color of edible products.

The Psychological Impact of Colors on Food

Can the perception of taste and flavor in humans be influenced by the color of food? The concise response is affirmative, as various factors contribute to an individual’s psychological and sensory interactions with food, encompassing attributes like texture, temperature, and visual appearance. Research indicates that color can wield a substantial impact on the overall eating experience.

During the act of eating or drinking, individuals typically process visual information foremost. They assess the food’s appearance against the backdrop of the plate or container, relying on years of past encounters with similar foods to form assumptions about taste and satisfaction before taking a bite. Whether on a conscious or subconscious level, color significantly influences several psychological facets of the eating experience.

  • Taste Perception: Color influences people’s expectations about the taste of their food; for instance, assuming a bright red apple will have a sweet flavor. If the actual taste doesn’t meet expectations, the brain may not register the difference, substituting perceived tastes with anticipated flavors or amplifying milder tastes.
  • Satiety Response: Consumption habits may be affected by the color and presentation of food. For instance, white foods like popcorn might encourage unconscious snacking. Studies also suggest that plate color can impact the quantity of food people choose to eat. However, further research is required to determine whether this effect is attributed to the color itself or the contrast between the plate and the food.
  • Enjoyment: Brightly colored foods, such as fresh produce and candy, are often linked with perceptions of better nutrition and flavor. If an individual finds a food’s color appealing, their overall enjoyment may be heightened, irrespective of the actual flavor or nutritional content.
  • Food Selection: Natural inclinations lead individuals to prefer foods with attractive colors while avoiding those with unappealing or concerning hues. Items with colors indicating spoilage or inferior quality are unlikely to attract customers in a supermarket setting.

The Psychological Impact of Colors on Food

Various foods exhibit a diverse array of colors, leading us to associate specific colors with particular flavors. Depending on one’s cultural background and past experiences, a red beverage may be perceived as cherry, strawberry, cranberry, or even tomato-flavored, but not likely assumed to taste like peach. The close connection between color and taste perception is shaped by the assumptions we make about flavor.

Different colors exert distinct influences on taste. For instance, foods with a vibrant red hue can enhance perceptions of sweetness while reducing perceptions of bitterness. This is why some manufacturers apply red coloring to the surfaces of fresh apples and tomatoes. Conversely, unexpected blue coloring in foods might dampen some people’s appetite due to the rarity of this color in nature.

Irregularities in Food Coloration

Off-coloring denotes a hue that contradicts consumers’ expectations of a particular food’s appearance. This can occur naturally, as seen with colors like green, black, or white associated with mold. However, off-coloring can also be artificially induced. Consumers tend to avoid foods displaying off-coloring, making it crucial to carefully select artificial dyes to mitigate adverse effects on flavor perception.

The Influence of Color on Flavor and Food Recognition

In 1980, a pivotal study was published in the Journal of Food Science, standing as a noteworthy exploration of how color shapes our perception, identification, and overall experience of foods. Utilizing a series of experiments designed to scrutinize the interplay among color, flavor, and food recognition, the researchers uncovered significant insights into our food perception:

  • Experiment 1: Participants, wearing red eye goggles in a room illuminated by red fluorescent lighting, were tasked with identifying the flavors of four fruit drinks, making color distinction impossible. Despite 70% correctly identifying the grape-flavored drink, only 20% could identify the orange-flavored one, compared to 100% accuracy under normal lighting conditions.
  • Experiment 2: Individuals were requested to characterize the flavors of beverages with their usual color additives replaced by unconventional colors. The findings revealed that “inappropriate coloring…induced flavor responses that are normally associated with that color.” Essentially, participants perceived an orange-colored, cherry-flavored drink as tasting like orange, not cherry.
  • Experiment 3: Research subjects assessed the acceptability of flavor in 12 cake samples, each with four color levels and three flavor levels, under either white fluorescent or color-masking red lighting. Color intensity significantly impacted both the acceptability of flavor and perceived flavor intensity; brighter cakes were reported as more intense. These effects were absent in participants tasting the cakes under color-masking conditions.

The discoveries provide profound insights into the pivotal role that color plays in shaping our perception of foods, often taking precedence over other sensory inputs and guiding an experiential path that diverges from the actual material reality. As the authors highlight:

“These experiments underscore the significance of a product’s color in influencing observers’ evaluations of other qualitative attributes of that product. While adjustments in flavor levels could compensate for diminished color in certain situations, this was not universally applicable across the entire color spectrum, underscoring the crucial importance of a specific color level for consumers.”

Follow-up studies have corroborated these findings across various contexts, ranging from inquiries into how the color of wine influences sensory perception to cultural variations in the perception and acceptability of corn color. Some research delves even deeper into the impact of ambient color, revealing that food packaging can significantly shape our taste experiences by creating (or failing to create) a contrast with the enclosed food.

The Neurological Basis of Food Encounters

So, what causes this phenomenon? Tom Vanderbilt poses the question in Nautilus, wondering whether participants struggle to fully discern flavors, relying on visual cues for guidance, or if color genuinely alters the taste experience. Charles Spence, the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, points to our neurological activity for answers. With over 50% of our cerebral cortex dedicated to visual processing and only 1-2% involved in taste, our brains heavily depend on visual information, particularly color, to predict and structure our food experiences. However, it’s not a one-way process; color information doesn’t merely act on our brains, but our brains also act on color information, leveraging years of conditioning to anticipate future experiences.

Spence notes a shift in understanding, stating, “All this information comes from outside through our eyes, ears, and tongue and works its way up through the cortical hierarchy.” He emphasizes that there are more pathways going from the inside out. In other words, encountering a ripe red tomato triggers our brains to draw on a catalog of past experiences with similar tomatoes, shaping our expectations before we even taste it. If the actual taste deviates, our brains can compensate by suppressing unwanted information and, unconsciously, attributing a desired quality that might not be present – a process driven by our innate desire to create a cohesive narrative of our taste experiences.

Similarly, when presented with an orange-colored cherry-flavored beverage, our brains are inclined to interpret it as orange, disregarding the cherry flavor and substituting it with information consistent with our expectations. As discussed in a 2014 study by Dunovan, Tremel, and Wheeler in Neuropsychologia:

“Anticipating a forthcoming sensory experience facilitates perception for expected stimuli but also hinders perception for less likely alternatives. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest that expectation biases arise from feature-level predictions that enhance early sensory representations and facilitate evidence accumulation for contextually probable stimuli while suppressing alternatives.”

This phenomenon may elucidate the shortcomings of products like Crystal Pepsi, Miller’s clear beer, and Burger King’s black burgers in the U.S. market; the color of these products did not align with consumer expectations. Crafting food products that match taste expectations entails developing recipes that consider each person’s existing database of expectations, providing items that contribute to an ongoing narrative of gustatory experiences.

Utilizing Color Analysis to Improve the Perception of Food

Food manufacturers invest significant resources in assessing the taste and visual appeal of their products to gauge market reception. Once in production, adhering to acceptable color standards becomes crucial for optimizing success. Employing spectrophotometric analysis throughout the manufacturing process ensures that food colors meet expectations, contributing to an enhanced consumer perception.

Modern spectrophotometers, with a variety of optical geometries, prove ideal for measuring the color of diverse edible products, including solids, powders, and liquids. These instruments, available in portable, benchtop, and in-process variants, automatically alert users to undesirable color shifts. This capability enables swift identification and quarantine of out-of-spec products, facilitating prompt corrective measures, cost savings, and the preservation of brand reputation.

HunterLab offers an extensive range of spectrophotometers and advanced software packages, delivering top-tier color quality control for the food industry. A commitment to innovation has driven the development of versatile technologies with user-friendly designs, ensuring easy, rapid, and precise analysis across all sample types. For further details on our lineup of color measurement instruments, world-class customer service support, and how we can assist in optimizing color outcomes, please contact us.

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The Importance of Color Measurement in Food Industry
November 15, 2023