• kate tuttle

Orange Broccoli, Anyone?

Color’s Influence on Our Perception of Flavor

Your waitress turns the corner, approaching your table ever so slowly. As the delectable scent of your piping hot five-cheese pizza fills your nose, you close your eyes in anticipation. Your mouth waters as steaming garlic teases your senses. You can almost taste the sweet, robust red sauce and bubbling mozzarella on their crisp bed of garlic dough. She lowers the tray down in front of you. The scent is still there. But picture this: the cheese is blue. The sauce, green. The crust… pink. Does that make you lose your appetite?

Visuals, particularly colors, play a huge role in the food experience. Even if this was a normal slice, tainted by nothing but flavorless dyes, your flavor perception would be warped.

In a 2003 study published in the Journal of Wine Research, New Zealand researchers had 29 wine experts taste and smell samples of untainted wines alongside “masked” counterparts. One red wine, a Pinot Noir, and one white, a Chardonnay, were used in the experiment. Participants smelled the red and white samples and assigned each two descriptive words. Later, subjects were given more samples to evaluate for the same four descriptors. These samples included the original Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as two masked wines: Chardonnay dyed either deeper gold (WG) or red (WR) to match the typical color of an aged white or a red, respectively. Each wine was presented in a black, opaque cup as well as a clear cup, totaling eight samples per subject for tasting.

The results of the WR variety proved surprising. While the other three groups saw little variability in ratings due to cup opacity, the Chardonnay that was dyed to appear red received higher ratings for white descriptors when presented in an opaque cup. Yet the WG group failed to produce the same effects. A deeper analysis may explain these results through the effect of two biases canceling each other out: first, that the deeper gold would have more intense notes of the Chardonnay descriptors previously given, and second, that the deeper the color, the lesser of these descriptors present.

The phenomenon described here, color-induced olfactory bias, has been widely studied. This bias can lead to us perceiving flavors that are not there, make us feel uneasy, and be used to subtly influence our eating experience.

And it’s not just the color of the food that matters; packaging can influence flavor perception as well. Would KFC with green and pink stripes look as tantalizing?

doi: 10.1080/09571260410001677969

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