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We eat with our eyes: Flavor perception strongly influenced by food color, says DDW

By Elaine WATSON , 27-Mar-2013

An informal taste test with two dozen students conducted by colors expert DD Williamson underlines just how strongly our perceptions of flavor are influenced by color.

The students, aged 16-18, were given carbonated drinks in three different hues (clear, brown and pink) and asked to describe how each tasted.

Pink is fruity, brown is cola…  

An overwhelming majority of the students - who were not told that all three drinks were in fact flavored with exactly the same lemon-lime flavor - said that the three beverages all tasted different.

Brown drink:  The brown, caramel-colored drink was described as either sweet or fruity by a third of the students. Cola was the next flavor identified, named by 15%.Nearly half could not offer a specific description of the flavor.

Pink drink:  The pink drink - which was the students’ favorite and felt to be the most flavorful and visually appealing - was described as ‘fruity,’ ‘berry’ or ‘sweet’ by more than one-third (38%) of the volunteers. Other responses included ‘cola’, ‘ginger ale’, and/or flavorless. 

Clear drink:  The clear drink was accurately described as having a lemon-lime or citrus flavor by 81% of the taste testers, although a small segment said it was flavorless.

Colors give rise to clear expectations about flavor

The findings reinforce those of larger studies that have consistently demonstrated that consumers have formed strong - albeit unconscious - associations between colors and flavors, DDW VP Campbell Barnum told FoodNavigator-USA.

He added: "We just ran this test as a bit of fun. But it backs up much larger studies that show we eat with our eyes.

"You can see this clearly in an ABC News piece from 2011 with Kantha Shelke [founder of food consultancy Corvus Blue] where consumers said yellow colored jello tasted of lemon and red colored jello tasted of strawberries, even though they both contained exactly the same lemon flavor."

Should firms ditch the color altogether?

While the fact that consumers are more accurately able to determine the flavor of clear beverages might appear to open up new opportunities for manufacturers (or save them some cash on food coloring), this does not mean that more beverage firms should simply ditch colors altogether, however, he cautioned.

"Look what happened with Crystal Pepsi [PepsiCo's clear cola beverage that was launched with great fanfare in the early 1990s but failed to catch on. It was also followed by Coke's equally unsuccessful Tab Clear]."

As to whether the vibrancy of a given color affects how people perceive its flavor, a lot probably depends on other variables, he speculated.

For example, consumers that have come to associate less lurid shades with more natural products may react differently to consumers expecting something that is banana flavor to be bright yellow.

Recent research also shows that consumers' expectations and perceptions of flavor are influenced by the color of food packaging as well as the product itself (click here) , while hot chocolate is perceived to taste better when served in an orange cup (click here ).

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