Can you taste colors? Nope. But can you guess the taste in relation to the color you see? Yes. We all expect what food tastes like depending on its color. And when color is off in a certain food, our brain tells us that something is different, too. Long before it’s studied by science, we humans use visual cues from color to judge and identify the taste of the foods we eat.
Our Sense of Taste is Complex
We all know that the senses that work as we eat are our sense of taste and smell. Before a bite of the food is taken, the aroma of food provides clues leading to how it’s going to taste. As you chew, you force air through the nasal passages, carrying the aroma of the food along with it. Without the partnership of taste and smell, you won’t grasp complex flavors. This is why if you have a stuffy nose or a bad cold, it’s hard to appreciate food even though you don’t technically eat with your nose.
Also, the way food feels in the mouth can also affect our flavor perception. The texture is defined by the physical properties of food, like soft or hard, mushy or lumpy, smooth, or crunchy. These factors are important when eating because it allows us to enjoy the experience.
Yet, taste, smell, and texture are not all the dominant senses when it comes to eating. Sight plays a large role as well. Half the brain is visual in some sense versus a few percent of the overall taste sense. Because of this, the shape and color of food and drink have a huge role in identifying its flavor and whether or not it’s appetizing.
Colors Affect Taste
Colors are the first thing you notice when checking out food. You can determine the doneness of steak because of its color. You can identify if a piece of bread is not safe to consume if there’s discoloration. Also, colors are associated with various types of foods, and these colors are equated to certain flavors. For example, you may expect a yellow pudding to have a banana or cheese or corn flavor. You expect a red candy to have a cherry or strawberry flavor. Once you see a green shake, you may expect it to have a matcha flavor, or you may think it’s made of vegetable greens. If the color doesn’t match our expectations, we may perceive its taste and flavor differently.
In a study published in the Journal of Food Science, researchers found that people are confused with flavors when the drink did not have the perceived appropriate color. Almost half of the participants in the study thought that a cherry-flavored drink colored in orange tastes like an orange drink, compared to the zero orange-flavor responses when the drink was in its original red color. Also, a cherry drink manipulated to be green was thought by some to taste like lime.
One significant study that demonstrates the strong link between color and flavor, as well as the pleasure we get from food, was reported by a marketer named J.C. Wheatley. During his experiment, he invited people to start eating a meal of steak, French fries, and peas under a color-masking lighting condition. Under this lighting effect, the participants enjoyed the meal just fine. But midway through the meal, Wheatley restored normal lighting to reveal that they were eating a blue-dyed steak, green French fries, and red peas. Upon seeing this, many of them lost their appetite, and some apparently started to feel ill. Seeing the color of the food was enough to induce nausea from the participants, even though they already ate some of the food.
The role color plays in food perception has long been researched and utilized by food companies to apply the correct food coloring or dyes to be added to packaged, processed, or even fresh foods. Adding a red food coloring to the skin of an apple may influence buyers into believing that the apple is sweeter in taste. The packaging of foods depends on the flavor of the product – yellows and blues generally indicate a mild flavor, but reds may indicate spicy or strong flavor.
It also helped them understand consumer behavior. Consumer panels and focus groups may sometimes complain to a manufacturer, telling them that the product tasted different even though all that changed was the color of the packaging or the product itself. For instance, a mouthwash manufacturer claims that their orange variant did not taste as astringent to some people as their regular blue variety, despite having the same active ingredients.
The brain certainly uses one sense to give perception as to what is going on in the others. Eating is not just about what your taste buds sense, but it’s a feast for all the senses. The flavor is much more complex than food is sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Good chefs and food manufacturers know that they need to take into consideration all the other senses that contribute to how we perceive flavor when creating a dish or food. If they can create a right balance between food that has great taste, visual appeal, rich aroma, and proper color, shape, and form, then they enhance the dining experience.