The Flavor of Color

It is a fact that color has a drastic effect on your perception of flavor. The information received from our eyes will lead us to anticipate a flavor based on the color of a food or beverage, and that initial assumption can over ride the information we receive from our taste buds and olfactory system.

At The Fat Duck Heston served a disk of gelee, orange on one side, maroon on the other. The diner was instructed to taste each side of the gelee individually without being told the flavor. This little bite stopped people in their tracks. They were tasting orange and beets, but the red side was blood orange, and the orange side was golden beet. The recognition of the two familiar flavors opposing their expected colors teased the diner a bit, forcing them to recognize how strongly we associate a particular flavor with a color.

In Elementary school, our teacher gave us an experiment; blindfold our partner and give them two small cups, one filled with seven-up, the other filled with coca-cola. They were required to tell us which was which based simply on taste. In our youthful arrogance we laughed, positive we could tell. I mean come on, cola is like, so obviously a different flavor than lemon-lime. Duh. We tasted away, and our crumbling confidence became a new source of amusement as child after child was stumped. Without the dark color telling us what cola was, we couldn’t distinguish the sodas from each other.

Last week I was working on a bubble gum ice cream base for a dish coming out this spring. Not only am I flavoring the ice cream like bubble gum, but I am coloring it pink as well. As I had the cooks taste the nameless pink cream and tell me what flavor it was, all but one agreed it tasted just like they remembered bubble gum tasting. Ironically no one had tasted bubble gum in years, myself included.

Brian however, looked pained when I gave him a spoon of the pink fluid. He asked why I was giving him pepto bismol. After a little prodding and a promise that is was indeed something I made he put the spoon in his mouth.

He grimaced and said, “Yup, that tastes just like pepto bismol. It is, isn’t it. Why did you make me eat that.”

As soon as we stopped laughing and told him it was bubble gum, he relaxed his face and said, “Oh yeah, it is bubble gum.” His initial assumption that the spoonful was going to taste like the chalky pink fluid, based solely on color, was so strong that his olfactory gave in and agreed. It didn’t matter how strong the bubble gum flavor was, his eyes told him pepto bismol and that was that.

I will admit that the sauce was too brightly colored. A little color goes a looonnnnggg way. When diners do see my bubble gum ice cream, on a plate with strawberry covered bananas and a vanilla cream filled sponge cake, it will be shades lighter than what I was feeding my cooks. We wouldn’t want anyone tasting pepto bismol ice cream.

It sparked a conversation about the preconception of flavor based simply on color, and I told them about my own experiment I did earlier last year.

I made a fresh sour cherry sauce that while stunning in flavor, was an off brown color. I split the sauce into two batches, and colored one with a bit of red food coloring. Two drops changed the dull brown color into a bright, vibrant red, much the color of the unprocessed cherries themselves. I had the cooks I worked with taste both and tell me which one tasted better, citing a difference in method as the reason for the color variation.

Cook after cook named the bright red cherry sauce as the better of the two. Way better, hands down above and beyond, they all said in their own words. To them, the bright red was an indicator of real cherry flavor, a better product, better handling, thus the sauce tasted better.

This brings up a deeper question. If the two sauces were identical in flavor, one only varying by the addition of two drops of color, then could one possibly taste better than the other? In fact the sauces were the same composition of flavor and texture, but in perception they were different, so which one is true?

At WD-50 I was surprised to find bottles of coloring mixed in with the dry stores. But Alex’s argument was that people will perceive something to taste better if it is colored they way they expect it to be. Case in point was the sweet avocado sauce served with the soft chocolate dish. As the sauce was processed, it would begin to brown a bit, straying from our concept that avocados are green. One drop of color helped this sauce, made daily from fresh avocados, retain it’s identity as fresh avocado. No matter how fresh the sauce actually was, the faded color would lead the diner to assume it was passing it’s prime, and that information would change their perception of the flavor.

It’s a very strong argument for using coloring in your food, a practice that once seemed blasphemous. Color won’t hide the fact that your food doesn’t taste good, but it can help you ensure that your diners are perceiving the flavors in your dishes as you intended them to be.

11 Responses to “The Flavor of Color”

  1. David W. Cowles says:

    You’re absolutely right! A few drops of yellow food coloring changes a liquid the color of dishwater into delicious chicken soup.

  2. lindsey says:

    I’m glad you remember bubble gum ice cream as being pink because I do as well. When I wanted to make some over the summer my coworkers kept telling me it was bright blue! Curious to know how you flavored it…

  3. Leslie says:

    I just made a savory beet dish from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe and she made a comment before the recipe that a friend of hers refused to eat it because it is fuschia. I made it and it IS like super fuschia and it was a little disconcerting to eat something that is savory but that looks the color of raspberry ice cream. So I think it works in reverse too: too vivid colors that are highly evocative of specific flavors can be a little confusing to the diner.

  4. Humans have absolutely pathetic noses compared to most other mammals, so we historically had to rely greatly on our sense of sight to tell us what was good to eat and what wasn’t. So it makes sense that we make very fine visual distinctions and that it impacts our perception of “goodness”. I love your cherry experiment in particular, that really puts it in fine focus. No pun intended.

  5. Aaron says:

    Hi Dana,
    I work at a very special ice cream shop and your words concur with what I experience every day. We struggle, as we use only natural products, to make ice creams the color they “should” be. It’s just that Rose-Pistachio just doesn’t sell if it isn’t pink; people simply don’t make the sensory connection between how it looks and how it tastes. We’ve gotten pretty creative with colorings; it’s amazing the things you can harness to change a color without noticeably altering the flavor.

  6. Chuck says:

    Great post. Your experiment with the cherry sauce brings home the point that you can’t just ask people what they like about something and expect them to get it right. We’re very bad at consciously evaluating our inner emotional state. Vaguely relatedly, there was a study awhile ago that found the thing most highly correlated with travelers rating airline seats as uncomfortable was how late their flight was. I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time in the front of the house as well — people might rate a server poorly if the room is too loud, for example.

  7. Really interesting post.

    I remember one night at cooking school, our garde manger chef put some leftover quenelles of savoury beet sorbet out on the family meal table, near some extra moelleux au chocolat cakes. The colour of the sorbet screamed “berry” and so a bunch of people took sorbet to have with the chocolate. It took a couple of seconds to process what they had just put in their mouth before people were utterly grossed out. Colour definitely creates expectation, and if the expectation is not met, it can be really disorienting.

  8. One more thing:

    There’s a French cookbook that deliberately plays with colour expectations and disorientation, like Heston Blumenthal’s red/orange jellies.

    Everything that looks like a familiar dessert is savoury, and vice versa. Pink pralines are breaded and deep-fried into something that looks like chicken goujons, a mushroom veloute is served in a clear mug like hot chocolate… ok, some of it’s a bit gross but it’s kind of fun, too.

  9. Dragan says:

    Good read, I never thought about food from that point of view. We use our senses so much to experience food nowdays. Here in Spain, we always make “paella” with orange food coloring! If it hasn’t, it isn’t paella anymore! :) Very interesting, thanks!

  10. Chelsea says:

    Very interesting. I recall when some brand decided it would be cool to make ketchup in green and purple. The green was fine, as green is a color that CAN be associated with savory food. Purple, however, is almost always associated with fruit in my house and both my father and myself found our brains were entirely confused at a purple tomato product. The mind is such an amazing thing…

  11. Aunty N says:

    Maybe that’s why pea soup is not a big hit with a lot of people – the color is disgusting. (BTW – I love pea soup!)

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