The Grapevine

Does Food Color Affect How It Tastes?

Are you drawn to buying apples in the most vibrant shade of red? Or do you swear M&Ms of a certain color definitely taste different?

Before you bite into a food item or take the first sip of a drink, your brain is already developing expectations for how it may taste — based on the smell, the texture, and of course, the color. These expectations can be rather powerful, to say the least. 

Charles Spence of the University of Oxford has conducted several studies on how color and smell can fool us into tasting flavors that are not present. In one of his tests, he instructed a leading wine taster to drink white wine which was dyed red. And what was his answer when he was asked to determine the flavor?

"He took some time before coming to his decision," Spence stated. "In the end, though, his struggle seemed to be about which particular red-berry flavor it was that he could detect in the wine – was it raspberry or strawberry?"

While the color red is typically associated with sweetness, which explains the attraction to the reddest apples, it also shares a strong link with other good tastes such as that of tender meat. It makes sense when you remember how many food and beverage brands use the color in their logo and packaging.

On the downside, certain colors were more likely to induce a negative reaction. One study from the 1970s had participants consume food in a dark room, facing no problem whatsoever.

But when the lights were turned on, it was revealed the steaks and French fries were dyed in blue and green food coloring. Half the participants lost their appetite and literally became sick after the reveal.

It is said blue, in particular, can be one of the least appetizing colors because its occurrence in nature was relatively uncommon. It could be compared to how our natural aversion to bitter tastes evolved as a defense mechanism against poisonous foods.

Yet, we cannot exclude the influence of culture, which has led to exceptions. In an interesting example noted by Spoon University, contrasting results emerged after Burger King sold black-colored burgers in Japan and the United States.

While it was not much of a success in the U.S., Japanese consumers exhibited a more positive response since black-colored foods were more normalized and prevalent in the country. In addition, even the density of taste buds can be a significant influencer. 

Recent research from Penn State acknowledged how color-taste associations can ultimately vary from person to person, which could impact how they respond to food-related marketing.

"This might have implications in the food industry if a company were to launch a new flavored product with a color," said Molly J. Higgins, a doctoral candidate in food sciences. "Some consumers might not learn or accept a new color and flavor pairing as well as others."