Eating with your eyes: How color changes flavor
When you go to a restaurant, you know they’ll make an effort to present the food in an attractive way.
If a meal looks looks gray and slapdash, you’ll probably enjoy it less. This is why you may be familiar with the phrase, “You eat with your eyes.”
In this article, we’ll explore the color of food and its role in how we perceive our meals and drinks.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s a link between the color of food and how much we enjoy it.
But why does color make a difference?
Why food color matters
Today, if you buy a meal at a restaurant or something from a grocery store, you can be relatively confident that it'll be fresh and free from toxins.
This hasn’t always been the case. Leaping back a few millennia, when humans lived in the wild, we had to be more discerning.
Something with toxins might taste grim, but it’s much better to detect a problem before food enters your mouth.
This is one reason why visual clues from food are important. And one of the most obvious clues is color.
The role of expectation
When you put a grape in your mouth, you know what to expect — an explosion of sweet, fruity juice. When you chomp into it, your expectations are met.
Now, imagine that you pick up a grape and pop it into your mouth. But as your teeth start to apply pressure, your expectations aren’t met — it’s actually an olive.
Or perhaps you notice a blob of cream on your plate. You scoop it onto a finger and eagerly place it in your mouth. Oh no! It’s actually mayonnaise.
If you’ve ever done something similar, you’ll remember how jarring it can feel.
Even if you like olives and mayonnaise, it can feel viscerally wrong when they appear uninvited. Experts call this a disconfirmed expectation.
So, how your food looks sets expectations about how it will taste. We’ll talk more about this later.
Over the years, researchers have investigated whether amping up the color of a food or drink influences its taste or flavor. Before we jump into the research, let's quickly brush up on the difference.
Taste vs. flavor
These words are interchangeable in everyday conversation, but they mean different things in scientific circles.
Taste is produced by taste receptors in your mouth. They give you salty, umami (savory), sweet, sour, and bitter tastes.
Flavor also takes smell into account — the odors that waft into your nostrils, as well as the aromas from food in your mouth that make their way into your nasal cavity.
Basically, taste involves just those specific five tastes. Flavor is much more complex.
OK, back to colors.
Color and taste
Some studies have shown that heightening the color of food or drink enhances the intensity of the taste.
For instance, in a study from 1982, scientists gave participants drinks containing different amounts of red food dye and sugar.
They found that people rated drinks sweeter when the drinks contained more dye.
Not all studies have found this, though. According to the authors of a 2010 review, the evidence that color affects taste intensity is “rather ambiguous.”
However, scientists are still investigating. And in 2019, one author of the 2010 review penned another.
In it, he writes that based on growing evidence, there are “robust associations between tastes and colors.”
Color and flavor
The evidence of color’s influence on flavor is more solid. For instance, in a classic experiment from 1980, scientists altered the color of drinks and cakes.
These products were flavored with different fruit flavorings. Those with more intense colors were rated as having more intense flavors.
Though the evidence of color’s impact on taste and flavor intensity isn’t watertight, there are other ways that color can influence taste. Let’s return to expectations.
The best evidence of color’s influence on our perception of food and drink comes from studies looking at flavor identity.
So, rather than focusing on a taste, like sweetness or saltiness, these studies tested participants’ ability to identify the flavor of a product.
One part of the experiment from 1980 used cherry-flavored drinks. These were colored green, red, or orange.
When participants drank the orange version, almost 20% identified the flavor as orange. And when it was colored green, 26% said it was lime-flavored.
But no participants thought the flavor was orange or lime when they sipped the red-colored cherry drink.
Later studies reached similar conclusions: The color of a drink influences how you perceive its flavor.
A study from 2008 added an important twist — the team told the participants that the colors and flavors of the drinks were likely to be mismatched.
But even with this warning, the participants were still more likely to identify the flavors incorrectly.
For instance, when they sampled an orange-colored drink with blackcurrant flavor, fewer than 20% could guess the flavor correctly.
This rams home the point that color is a powerful moderator of expectation. Even if you know the color is wrong, it still affects your perception.
Let’s look at one more study.
Smoked salmon ice cream
One fascinating study used an unusual food: smoked salmon ice cream. As part of their experiments, scientists asked people to try this bright pink dish.
Beforehand, they gave different participants different information. They told some it was a savory mousse, others that it had the ambiguous name of “food 386,” and the rest received no information.
People without prior information, who only had visual clues to go on, were probably expecting strawberry ice cream.
Unsurprisingly, their expectations weren’t met and they didn’t like it. They said it was too salty.
Those in the other two groups, however, liked the concoction much more, and some said the seasoning was just right.
Once again, expectations are powerful, and colors help set up those expectations.
Color and overeating
So far, we’ve seen that the color of food can help you expect a certain taste. Also, color might influence how flavorful your food seems.
Some scientists think that color could also influence how much we eat.
For instance, one study used Smarties, which are similar to M&Ms. They used four colors of Smartie, and each tasted identical — they only differed in color.
The team found that when participants (aged 16–19) only ate one color of Smartie, it slowly started to taste less appealing. But the other colors — which tasted exactly the same — still tasted good.
So, theoretically, we might be tempted to eat more of candies that come in a range of colors.
In line with this theory — though not specific to colors — other research has shown that when we’re presented with a variety of foods, we’re likely to consume more.
Interestingly, color might also influence food intake in the other direction.
Color and portion control
In one ingenious study, scientists asked participants to watch a movie while eating potato chips from a tube.
Some tubes contained standard chips. In others, every fifth or seventh chip was red. The scientists found that participants with the red chips ate over 50% fewer chips.
However, this might have less to do with color and more to do with monitoring how many chips you're eating.
Things to consider
The studies we’ve covered here are fascinating, but we need to be careful about interpreting the results. There's a lot to consider at the crossroads between psychology and nutrition.
Troubles with study design
Many of these experiments used drinks because they’re easier to manipulate. So, the results might not be true for foods, which tend to be more complex.
Also, in many of these experiments, the only visual difference between the drinks was their color. In the real world, this is rarely the case. We have packaging, branding, and other clues to work with.
Also, since color was only factor that changed, the participants might have been particularly focused on it. This could have increased the influence of color on their expectations.
Another important point is that color suggests different things about different foods.
If you saw a yellow piece of candy, you might expect it to be banana- or lemon-flavored. This isn’t true for a yellow curry.
Other clues are also important for setting up your expectations. You might expect blue liquid in a bottle next to a bathroom sink to be minty mouthwash. But you won’t if it’s served in a cocktail glass at a bar.
Variety is the spice of life
We also need to remember that we’re all different. Studies have shown that people from different cultures assign different flavor expectations to the same color.
One study found that people in Taiwan are more likely to expect a mint flavor from a blue drink, whereas people in the United Kingdom are more likely to expect a raspberry flavor.
Plus, there’s evidence that this effect changes across your lifespan. “Visual cues exert a somewhat greater influence on flavor identification early in development and in old age, [compared with] adulthood,” the authors of a review write.
So, during childhood and older age, color might play more of a role in our enjoyment and identification of flavors.
What about genes?
Genetics might enter the picture, too. The clearest example of this involves people who are color-blind. Although there’s little research, it’s safe to assume that color perception affects our flavor expectations.
Also, some people are “supertasters.” These individuals have more tastebuds and are more sensitive to tastes.
Again, there’s little research, but one study on colored drinks provides some insight.
The researchers found that supertasters were better at naming the flavor of a drink when it had a mismatched color. So, it seems that color might influence their flavor perception less.
As you can see, a lot of questions remain.
All in all, color does seem to affect our enjoyment and perception of food. But, like so much in nutrition, everyone’s different, and lots of research remains to be done.
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