How colours affect your tastebuds

In our Spotlight series Live Life Better we’re looking at ways that sensory experiences can improve the life we live. But our senses don’t work in isolation – they combine to create different sensations. Rich McEachran explores the relationship between sight and taste…

You might not realise it, but the colour of our food affects our perception of it. Back in October 2000, the food giant Heinz launched a green ketchup, with purple, pink, orange and teal variants of the traditional red condiment following in the months after. While the company reportedly shifted 25 million bottles of the EZ Squirt range in the period to early 2003 – 2.5 million in the first three months alone – sales dwindled and the line was discontinued in 2006.

Its failure to live long in the shopping baskets of consumers should come as no surprise. Consumers may have initially reacted positively to the product, but there were some concerns that, by Heinz stripping away the pigment in regular ketchup and adding food colouring, EZ Squirt didn’t taste like the real thing.

In truth, it doesn’t matter whether the recipe was altered or not (it most likely wasn’t). When we are presented with food that is different in colour from what we’ve come to expect, it changes our perception of how it will taste.

“We’ve all probably heard how we shop and eat with our eyes. We make more than 200 food decisions each day, but we’re not conscious of 90 per cent of them,” says David Greenwood-Haigh, a chocolatier and chef with over forty years’ experience in the food industry. “It only takes a few seconds for us to make a decision on whether we’re going to eat something or not or pick up a certain product from a supermarket aisle. And that decision is based on how it looks.”

A large body of research backs up the notion that we are impacted by the colour of both what we eat and what our food is packaged in. One study from 1980 had subjects blindfolded and asked whether they could identify the flavour of the orange beverage in front of them. Only one in five could, but once the blindfold was removed, all of them identified the flavour correctly. When they were presented with a lime-flavoured beverage that was coloured orange, nearly half of the subjects thought it too was orange-flavoured, although none did when it was its usual green colour.

The food industry is aware of the associations that we make, even if it’s unaware of how exactly taste is perceived in the brain. And other than marketing moves like Heinz’s EZ Squirt, the industry will use this knowledge to inform the decisions they take to make their products as enjoyable and tasty as possible.

Familiarity is in the eye of the beholder

Like we’ve come to expect ketchup to be red, we associate chocolate with different shades of brown, unless, of course, it’s white. For this reason, most large-scale confectionery companies play it safe when it comes to colour, says Greenwood-Haigh. Brown is what we’re familiar with, so it evokes a warm feeling.

“Any flavoured fillings, such as strawberry or lemon, will be captured by their traditional colours: pink and yellow,” says he adds. “There is a trend among modern brands to add fancy toppings to create new textures, like jelly beans and honeycomb pieces. But even with these inclusions, they’re always set against the backdrop of the familiar brown colour.”

This isn’t to say that food and drink companies shouldn’t and won’t experiment with their colour choices. If they want guaranteed sales, then the best option is stick to what consumers know and associate with a particular food. Sometimes though, a business might want to refresh its branding or acquire a bigger share of the market it’s in. Using bold or unusual colours can help to pique interest and lead to an immediate, albeit short-term, spike in sales, like what happened with EZ Squirt – in 2002, the range helped Heinz to push its ketchup total market share to a then-record 75 per cent.

“There aren’t colours to avoid per se, but there are some that should be used cautiously,” continues Greenwood-Haigh. “Intuitively, we associate blue with food that’s gone off, which isn’t a message that companies want to be giving to consumers. However, studies have shown that blue-coloured food can also have a positive impact on reducing appetite and how much we eat, so it’s swings and roundabouts.”

To illustrate Greenwood-Haigh’s point regarding blue is an infamous study in the field of food-related neuroscience from the 1970s. Participants were presented with a plate of steak and fries, which looked perfectly edible under certain lighting conditions. They all enjoyed it, until it was revealed under normal lighting, that the steak and fries had been injected with blue and green dye respectively. Some of the participants then started complaining that they felt unwell.

What effect can other colours have? According to Greenwood-Haigh, yellow can help to grab attention, black has premium connotations and red signals indulgence and can wake the tastebuds. Green is normally a signpost for natural ingredients and health and wellness.

Changing the conversation

There’s another reason why food and drink companies might want to use colours that we don’t normally associate with certain foods, especially when it comes to packaging: to influence our opinion of them and get us to eat more of them.

Paul Rostand is the founder of Great British Biscotti Co, which produces biscotti in a range of flavours, including stilton and raisin, jalapeño and cheddar, and chorizo and parmesan. When Rostand started out, he realised that the Italian biscuit had been “shackled with a substantial yet stolid image and a sidekick reputation as a coffee accompaniment”.

Image of Great British Biscotti Company's products

In order to break free from this and present his product as a savoury snack suitable for cheeseboards (not just a biscuit for dunking in hot drinks), the company chose vibrant colours for its packaging. Biscotti is usually associated with shades of grey, beige and pink.

“Some might think that vibrant colours suggest image over substance and a flimsy commitment to natural ingredients, but this couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Rostand. “For us, the playful colours were a way to disrupt, to shatter historical misconceptions and demonstrate our product’s flavour dexterity. It provided us with a meaningful cut-through in a cluttered biscuit market.”

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