How Much Does Color Impact Taste?

from the more-than-you-would-think dept

With recent reports claiming that food coloring might increase hyperactivity in children, leading the FDA to say that there isn’t enough proof that such dyes are really a problem for most, it has some people asking if we really need food coloring at all. While there’s one argument, which says that if you’re eating food that needs to be colored, you’re not eating food (think of that as the Michael Pollan argument). But, on the other side, some people are wondering why the same products can’t be made without food coloring. Apparently, those people aren’t aware of just how much color impacts taste. Apparently it can more or less override our tastebuds. I’d always heard that smell could override tastebuds, but it sounds like color might do an even better job.

In an experiment with “uncolored” Cheetos Crunchy Cheese Flavored snacks, apparently, the bland color matched people’s feelings about the taste:

Their fingers did not turn orange. And their brains did not register much cheese flavor, even though the Cheetos tasted just as they did with food coloring.

“People ranked the taste as bland and said that they weren’t much fun to eat,” said Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University and director of the university’s Food and Brand Lab.

Tests in the other direction also had a similar impact. Seeing a different color than is actually the flavor can make that flavor seem apparent:

When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding.

Of course, this may be tempting me to start adding more food coloring to various things, rather than less…

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Comments on “How Much Does Color Impact Taste?”

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48 Comments
Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

I totally get the color=flavor thing

Like when you pull out one of the Doritos that just looks like a plain tortilla chip and you eat it anyway but it just kind of sucks. And then you come across one that’s like completely orange and you’re like, “Hell yeah! That’s why I’m eating these!”

Of course, once you’re down to the bottom of the bag, it’s all orange but the chip pieces are so small and kind of disappointing and then your wife catches you dumping the last of that bag directly in your mouth and kind of gives you a look that says “this is very close to the ‘or for worse’ column,” and you can’t really respond because you’ve got a family-size bag covering your noise-hole and you’re pretty much out of saliva.

I think it’s called the Law of Diminishing Returns. Both the chip/flavor thing and the “for worse” look.

Anonymous Coward says:

Interesting. Food dye is sort of a “visual spice”, then.

…I wonder how much of an effect that had on whatever clinical trials went into the aforementioned reports? Maybe the cause of increased activity was psychosomatic, rather than chemical.
How about another clinical trial to test it? Group A would have bland-looking food. Group B would have the same food, colored with food dye to look appealing. Group C would have the same food, colored to look appealing without using food dye.
Maybe use apples? A skinned apple, a skinned apple dyed red, and an unskinned apple. Something like that, anyway.

Chris Ball (profile) says:

Oranges and Lemons

Here’s my favourite example of this: One of the main components of orange and lemon flavour is limonine. The molecule happens to be chiral: one of the molecules is considerably more common in orange and the other in lemon. Apparently some cheap candies would use the racemate as a flavouring (because it was cheaper than optically pure orange or lemon). If you tasted them with your eyes closed, you couldn’t tell the difference. But sure enough, the yellow ones tasted like lemon and the orange ones like orange.

The same apparently goes for mint and caraway, but you’d never get me to try a caraway candy no matter what colour it was.

PRMan (profile) says:

I can taste the dyes...

In High School, I used to tell M&Ms apart by the dye taste, so despite claims to the contrary, they do have a flavor and one that would be awful on mashed potatoes. (The addition of red and blue has made this all but impossible now.)

That said, to me, most people seemingly can’t taste anything. It astounds me that people can eat Doritos, which just taste like MSG, or things fried in canola oil, because it tastes like a sheet of paper. The article doesn’t surprise me at all, as most people’s taste buds are incredibly dull.

Midnight Voyager says:

Re: I can taste the dyes...

So can I. A friend and I skewed some poor classmate’s science fair project results. He had blindfolded people given M&Ms to eat and had them guess the colors. The two of us got every one right.

I wish people might take into account the fact that not everyone’s taste buds are the same in these studies. Perhaps some people CAN taste the dyes they use, while many cannot? Perhaps color affects taste more in some than others?

FarSide (profile) says:

Re: Re: I can taste the dyes...

The fact you can taste them doesn’t matter for the purpose of this article, though. The idea is that the color makes people perceive the taste to match other foods of the same color, based on their own experiences or expectations.

That is, the same coloring (orange, for example) might cause you think something like Cheetos is cheesier, while something like orange-jello is orangeier.

So while I don’t doubt that a dye can indeed impart its own flavor, it doesn’t mean a dye’s inherent flavor will make the foods taste better.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: I can taste the dyes...

That said, to me, most people seemingly can’t taste anything. It astounds me that people can eat Doritos, which just taste like MSG, or things fried in canola oil, because it tastes like a sheet of paper.

Kind of weird, sounds like you’re the one who has trouble discerning tastes…

The article doesn’t surprise me at all, as most people’s taste buds are incredibly dull.

More likely the sense of smell, since your taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. All other “tastes” are actually smells.

Grey Ferret says:

Maybe not color, but psychology

Sure, Nacho Cheese flavored chips that are orange taste great. Those same Nacho Cheese chips without color taste bland. But, what if you took those colorless chips and re-labeled them “Aged White Cheddar” or something? Suddenly, they might taste good again. I think it has a lot to do with psychology and our expectations, and not so much to do with color.

el_porko (profile) says:

Re: Maybe not color, but psychology

Agreed,
Ring the bell and we salivate. The food industry has changed our perception by training our basic instincts to jump through their hoops.

It will take a long time (probably never) to untrain ourselves.

Yet there are products like “hint” flavored waters that have no color yet are popular. Spices you can’t see when added to meat, pasta, etc that change the flavors. Salt anyone?

And what color is an nice apple, red? green? yellow?

Rekrul says:

A couple years ago, I bought some “magic” Kool-Aid from a local supermarket. It was just standard Kool-Aid with the coloring left out. To me, it tasted like exactly what it was supposed to. I bought it not because of the novelty of it, but because they offered a flavor combination that wasn’t available in the normal mixes. Sadly, they seem to have stopped carrying all the combo flavors and now just carry the 5-6 standard ones, like cherry and orange.

The only thing I didn’t like about the “magic” version was that if you made up a couple different ones at the same time, you couldn’t use the color to tell them apart.

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