The Colors We Eat

Posted on August 8, 2015

When it comes to food, color is money. Food companies scan their products on the line with custom colorimeters to ensure mathematically consistent hues. Fruits and vegetables are shipped in chemically "modified" atmospheres, because "better stem and fruit color gives better prices," according to the website of the delivery company TransFresh. Color is judged by a legion of standards all along the food chain. The hue of orange juice, for example, is carefully calibrated by the United States Department of Agriculture's Orange Juice Color Standards (Grade-A orange juice from concentrate has to be "not as good as OJ 5 but much better than OJ 6.") There are few worse fates, in the eyes of federal regulators, than for a berry to be "undercolored."

The attention to color is not just for show: For all the talk of the tongue and palate, our eyes are arguably the most important gustatory organ. As Charles Spence, who heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, points out, more than half of our cortical real estate is dedicated to processing vision—just a percent or two is given over to taste faculties (making us rather unique among mammals). The result is not just that color flavors our expectations: It actually changes how we taste food.

The eyes can deceive even the expert tongue. A study at Cornell University, for example, found that trained experts had trouble distinguishing the fat content of milk when they could not see it; the "whiteness" of milk was a far more important cue than whatever sensations came from actually having it in one's mouth. "There is nowhere that is safe from expectation," argues Spence.

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Source material from Nautilus