Color Theory And The Food World

When humans encounter color, an interesting thing happens. We not only see the color, we feel it. It seems that people attach a significant amount of emotion and feeling to color, which is evident in marketing schemes, power outfits, and even the crayons you most used as a child. There's a reason Captain Hook baked Peter Pan a poison cake and turned it green. Because cake is supposed to be many things, but sickly green? It's not one of them. I feel the same cringing that overtook Tinkerbelle when anyone posts a photo of matcha waffles, grassy smelling and almost comically green. It does not look like something I remotely want to eat and I sometimes wonder...what has happened to the colors in our food palette?
Jerry Cao in an article for Creative Bloq on the use of color in marketing puts it this way when describing the color red:
"Every colour elicits a different and unique emotional response in the viewer...As a dominating colour, red adds gravity and heightened awareness – quite literally, as the colour increases blood circulation, breathing rates, and metabolism. " 
While some people are more sensitive to the effects of color than others, experts and consumers alike agree that the color of something will effect its appeal to a person. We've all been sitting in a lecture and been driven nearly to distraction by two colors that clash. When composing the above photo, it was almost painful for me to combine those colors which definitely do not go together. So the emotional impact of color effects desirability. Thus far, the world of color in general and the world of food are in agreement. But when it comes to the specifics of which colors elicit which reaction, Food divorces itself from the mainstream.

Take blue. "Blue," according to Cao, "is the color of calm and serenity, and as such inspires security and a feeling of safety." But think of blue foods. First off, there aren't many. Search through the entire world of food and you will find very few things which are naturally blue. Even blueberries are not blue once they are frozen, cooked, or blended into a smoothie. Blue corn and blue potatoes are, likewise, more purple than blue. And this leaves blue cheese (the process of mold), borage (technically a flower), and red cabbage (which definitely adheres to the purple family). Oh, and one last little culprit: the butterfly pea flower. I ordered a package of dried butterfly pea flowers in order to make this magic butterfly lemonade. And while I haven't gotten around to that project yet (it seems like a such a springtime thing!) I am secretly hoarding the entire, clandestine package in my cupboard. Apart from the naturally indigo butterfly pea flowers, blue (when it comes to food) inspires the exact opposite feeling to serenity and trust that it usually does in the wider world. Were someone to serve me a blue pound-cake I would have a lot of questions, wouldn't you? "What flavor is this? Where did it come from? Why is it blue? How much food coloring did they use and why?" Blue, in fact, is not at all an appealing color for food. I remember Mary Berry saying something to that effect on The Great British Baking Show. (I tried to Google which episode this occurs in. I only succeeded in falling down a charming rabbit hole and learning that she used to think Jamie Oliver was "bumptious and irritating.")

Likewise, the color grey is known to be soothing, peaceful, and serene. Were anything remotely grey to turn up on my plate, I would have serious questions. Grey mashed potatoes only occur when the wrong potatoes are used for the recipe and the starch levels are horribly wrong. Grey pork loin has been cooked to death and has sat for hours in a highly pigmented broth or gravy. I have successfully eaten grey ice cream (black sesame) and very recently seen a grey bundt cake (also black sesame) with a lurid pink frosting, courtesy of raspberries. But unlike its behavior elsewhere, grey's effects on average diner will be hesitancy, suspicion, and loss of appetite.
This odd division between color theory in the food world and color theory in the rest of the universe also works the opposite way. Yellow in your everyday life can be warming, relaxing, and pleasant but is also used for stressful or urgent things like alarms, taxis, warning signs, and road signs. Inversely, yellow in the food world is almost always good. Yellow corn, yellow tomatoes, yellow squash, saffron, turmeric, lemons - the effect is wholly positive and even cherished. Relaxing, familiar, traditional. Yellow, when it comes to food, is purely golden.

But why do we have these peculiar aversions? I've been thinking a lot of about this (anytime I scroll past a sordidly blue smoothie bowl or galaxy milkshake). Then I remembered something I had read in Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Taste by Bob Holmes when he talked about mapping our tongues and what flavor is composed of. Deep inside us are a series of reactions to how food is "supposed to be." Some of them are learned and can be un-learned, others are an innate response, like when (as children) we spit out bitter things. Bitterness, it seems, is present in a host of inedible plants and herbs. And so the quiet instinct of all humans to know how things "ought to taste" or "ought to look" has helped to build aversions to particular colors when they show up in our kitchens. See, when colors interact with food, something different happens than when color interacts with almost anything else. Things like blue puddings, grey cakes, and moldy-looking green matcha doughnuts (I will never love you) are some of the colors that we might ordinarily love but they become a totally different game when they show up on your dinner table: suspicious, ill-favored hues masquerading in familiar shapes.

I'll always vote for naturally colorful food, salads packed with vivid produce, and fruit salads bursting with rainbow hues. But although it may be on-trend, good for you, or very very instagrammable, I think I will always prefer grey to stay out of it entirely, blue to limit itself to tortilla chips or magic lemonade, and matcha to steer clear of my beloved doughnuts.

Where do you fall on this color scale?

1 comment

  1. That's quite true, though I've never really thought about it. Foods that have been artificially colored are definitely not as appealing as natural colored foods. I always like it when food is colorful (butternut squash and fruit, etc.), but it's true that there are weird colors for food to be. Thanks for these thoughts!