Of all the things that set us up for the enjoyment of a food, color is the most important sensory cue. While we might think that it’s largely smell that affects our perception of a food, research after research has shown that it’s actually color that is the single most important sensory factor. This applies not only to the color of our food itself, but also to the color of the containers and utensils we use to eat it.
Take ice cream, for example. This frozen dessert is universally popular and it is enjoying in everything from a paper ice cream cup to a waffle cone. The research says that the color of our frozen treats, as well as the color of the paper ice cream cup we put it in, will affect how much we enjoy it and what we think of it.
We expect the intensity of a color to be matched by an intensity of taste. Thus a blueberry ice cream that is very light in color does not disappoint us if the blueberry flavor is subtle and understated. Color that same serving in the same paper ice cream cup with some extra blue food coloring, and we will suddenly find the flavor disappointing. Some of us will even describe the second bowl as having a more intense flavor than it really does.
Colors have an effect upon our ability to detect flavor types, such as sour, bitter, and sweet. In a recent study, when food coloring was added to identical clear solutions, it the different colors affected the ability of tasters to detect flavors. When yellow food coloring was added to the solution, the tasters could not detect as much sour or sweet flavor. When green was added, it became harder to taste sour but easier to taste sweet.
Color and Experience
Interestingly, at least some of our perception of color and taste is clearly ingrained in us over time. When adults and children were tested on identical pairs of drinks, the results were very different. The two red drinks were identical, yet one was light red and the other a deep reddish purple. The two green drinks were also identical, but one was light green and the other very dark.
The adults consistently rated the darker drinks as sweeter than their lighter counterparts. Yet the children, up to the age of 14, had no difficulty identifying that the drinks tasted exactly the same.
Color and Containers
People consistently link their enjoyment of a food or drink to the color of the container it comes in. Partly this is because we cannot use our senses of smell, taste, or touch while a food is still in a package. We can only use the package itself to make a judgment.
But even when we can use other senses, we still rate our enjoyment of a food in part based on the color of the container it comes in. If eat our gelato from a white paper ice cream cup, we are likely to enjoy it less, all other things being equal, than if we eat it from a red paper ice cream cup even if it’s exactly the same dessert.
It’s not just colors, though. We also like our container colors to contrast with the color of our food. What does this mean? It means that if the gelato in the previous example happens to be a red cherry ice cream, we will then prefer it in a white paper ice cream cup. The contrast in color means more to us than the color alone.
Color and Genetics
Some of our color preferences are down to our personal life experiences or to our culture. But some of our perception of taste is genetics. Some people have significantly fewer tastebuds than others, for example, and research suggests that these people tend more than other people to rely on color when evaluating flavor.
There is also preliminary data that suggest people with color blindness have an entirely different perception of color and its relation to flavor than those with ordinary sight.
We don’t yet fully understand all the intricate interplay between color and flavor in our experience. But one thing we can be sure of: color matters.