Can the color of natural foods indicate the time when their nutrients are most bioavailable? Are packaged foods made to be certain colors in order to manipulate how we perceive them? Can the juxtaposition of foods of different colors on a plate increase food acceptability?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Consider the following: A huge bowl of pineapple chunks. A sea of glossy yellow pieces, in a bowl, placed before you. Now, placed before you is a bowl full of bright green kiwi, lush blueberries, crisp apple chunks, sliced strawberries, and vibrant pineapple all mixed together. It’s so beautiful!
You’d probably eat the pineapple in either bowl (if you enjoy pineapple), but there is something much more powerful about the kaleidoscope of colors on the right. There will be lots of pictures in this post because that’s what this whole science experiment is about! So take a look at the photos and see how you feel about the food. You may have a different reaction than someone else, and that’s okay! Color psychology is a science, but it is open to subjective commentary since we are all made to perceive things differently.
The best way to grasp the concept of color psychology and food is to consider the color blue.
There are very few naturally-occurring blue foods. Blueberries. Blue corn. That’s about it. And really, if we’re being honest, they are deep blues that dip into the indigo realm of the color spectrum anyways. This is because the color blue actually acts as an appetite suppressant (I guess the researchers who determined this have never seen me down an entire pint of blueberries in one sitting). Here’s a few great examples:
Let me help you out- that’s eggs on the left and sushi on the right. We don’t have a natural attraction to blue foods, and that’s something I don’t think many people would dispute. But, it is also backed by anthropological findings. Our ancestors recognized blue, purple, and black plants to be “warning signs” of potentially dangerous (lethal) foods. This demonstrates how color is more than meets the eye. It can give us clues into whether or not to eat something, a sort of instinctual reaction. And when a food is a color different from what we know it to typically be, it raises some suspicion and gives us pause. Blue eggs anyone?
Another example is bananas. When its green we know not to eat it, when it’s brown we know not to eat it. Color is a cue for when the optimal time to eat a banana is, though this was likely a learned event for our ancestors. And it goes even further. Nutrition research has shown that when a banana is ripe (not green or brown) it actually has the highest amount of absorbable nutrients with the least amount of disadvantages! Technically, you can eat a banana green or brown- green bananas are considerably lower in sugar than ripe bananas (better for those with diabetes) and can act as a prebiotic, but they more difficult to digest in the body. Taste ultimately determines the most pleasing time to eat a banana, but color is the tool used to lead the decision making process.
Perception vs Reality
The more intensely colored the food, the more intense the perceived taste. Thus, the consumer might then have a more intense experience, or be disappointed by the lack of actual intensity if their experience does not match the perception. Here, personal taste still reigns supreme. However, the expectation of the taste based on the visual cue (the color) will have some impact on the experience- either confirming or disproving the visual perception. I particularly liked this quote I found because it stresses just how impactful the color of food can be:
“Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge”
With this knowledge in mind, food companies place a great deal of time and money in perfecting the color of their products. One study showed that the addition of food coloring can increase perceived sweetness by 10%! This could be a boon for companies looking to decrease the amount of sugar in a product while still preserving the desired sweet taste. Further discussion into this fascinating area of food color marketing will have to wait for another post because there is so much to get into! Let the suspense build.
For more on perception versus reality, I have a fun video to share. One fascinating experiment is when participants are given red wine and white wine dyed red, then they are asked to tell the difference (sign me up!) Results show participants are rarely able to tell the difference. This sounds like a fun party trick to me.
Color Psychology of Meal Plating
When crafting a meal to be served, whether at a restaurant, for a family, or in a meal delivery operation, color becomes extremely important. The visual of a meal influences the eater’s initial thoughts about the meal. This perception can linger into the meal experience and alter the eaters overall take on the meal.
I don’t claim to be an expert of on meal plating techniques. I think intuition and creativity are two of the biggest tools for optimal meal plating, however, there is quite a bit of a science to it as well. Here’s a summary of some research done by the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University in regards to color theory (there’s actually a lot of science about the spatial arrangement of the food and surrounding objects as well):
Take a look at this lovely Cornell researcher:
He’s offering you two plates of green beans. Which do you choose? (And choose quickly because by the looks of those grips on the plate I don’t think there’s much time until he drops them.) Does one plate look more appetizing than the other? Personally, I think the yellow plate looks more appetizing- the green on green seems a bit overwhelming, even for someone like me who enjoys green beans. Again, you may have a different take, but it still shows that color can influence food acceptability! What if the green beans were served with thin slices of parmesan cheese and crumbled bits of bacon? Certainly those flavors may make it more appetizing, but the overall, more detailed look prepares you for that. You could add sprigs of parsley to the plate and it wouldn’t give the same effect. The colors would blend together into a sea of green on green on green. Visually, this isn’t as appealing.
What about portion size in regards to color? A study done by the team of Cornell researchers set out to answer this very question: At a college reunion two buffets were set up. One line of alfredo or tomato sauce pasta with red plates and those same options in another line with white plates. After participants served themselves, freely able to choose whatever pasta and whatever plate, serving sizes were weighed. The results are very interesting. Participants who choose low contrast (so, red sauce with red plate or white sauce with white plate) served themselves 30% more (~42g) pasta than those with high contrast plates (red sauce with white plate and white sauce with red plate)!
So now I’ve changed my tune on the green beans vs plate color debate. While I may initially choose a contrasting colored plate, I do believe it would be easier to eat more green beans if they were served on a green plate. So, if you’re trying to eat more greens, go with a green plate! Trying to eat less pasta? Pick a green plate! The solution here seems to be to change all your dishes to a monochromatic green theme. Kidding.
In some ways, I feel as though I have barely scratched the surface on this topic. Questions still left to be answered in a future post: are foods of similar colors similar in their micronutrient benefits to the body? Natural vs artificial dyes in processed foods- are they safe? And there’s still my earlier question about the color of food packaging and its effect on consumer choice. All this and more will be answered in a future post because I just can’t get enough of this topic!
P.S.- A bit more digging into why there are no blue foods revealed the following hypothesis:
There are two major groups responsible for pigmentation of the edible portion in naturally occurring foods: carotenoids and anthocyanins, which supplies yellow, orange, red, and red, purple, blue, respectively. This is not taking chlorophyll into account which supplies the color green for the leaves of a plant. The common element between these two groups is the color red. Using the opponent color process theory, red is in opposition of green and thus these two cannot blend (there is no reddish-green). So, for a plant to have fruit that stands out, red would be the best bet, or some shade of red (orange, yellow, or purple). Red is the underlying color for each of these shades of pigmentation, and so if a plant were to attempt a blue hue, some red would still remain, leaving it to make a purple-ish blue, like that of blueberries. This is one one thought as to why there are no pure blue foods in nature!