Research gives colour on what makes adults fussy eaters

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/TeoLazarev
Image: Getty/TeoLazarev

Related tags reformulation Salt sugar sweetness

A study examining the characteristics of picky eaters has found the colour of food containers has an influence on taste.

Many studies have shown that simple changes of colour saturation can impact the expectations and overall experience of food. A 2011 study gave participants different coloured bowls in a random order, filled with sweet or salty popcorn and asked them to rate the sweetness, and saltiness. Salty popcorn was perceived significantly sweeter when served in a red bowl, while sweet popcorn was perceived significantly saltier when served in a blue bowl. This effect is believed to be due to specific colour flavour associations where certain colours such as red and blue have been shown to reliably associate with the basic tastes of sweet and salty respectively.

In a first-of-its-kind study, UK academics have now examined whether colour influences perception of food in adult so-called picky eaters.

Picky eating behaviour is usually categorised as having a limited diet, specific food preparation, strong dislikes and difficulty accepting new foods. Across a lifespan, a picky eater will generally consume fewer than 20 different food items. Over 18% of the UK adult population are classified as picky eaters.

Research in the area of picky eating has been largely focused on child aged populations. So alongside the considerable health consequence of a limited diet, little research is available on the prevalence and effects of picky eating in older ages. And while previous research has demonstrated that the smell and texture of food can affect how it tastes for picky eaters, little is known about other senses. 

A team from the University of Portsmouth gathered nearly 50 people to measure their food neophobia, the reluctance to eat or try new food. The participants, who were divided into picky and non-picky eaters, then tasted the same snacks served in red, white and blue bowls.

The results revealed that both the perceived saltiness and desirability of the foods were influenced by colour in the picky group, but not the non-picky group.

Specifically, the snack was rated as higher in saltiness in the red and blue versus white bowl, and least desirable when served in the red bowl. In the UK, salty snacks are often sold in blue packaging, and the team believe that this might explain some of the saltiness findings.

The study’s authors said the will provide further insight into the multisensory effects of colour on eating habits while broadening our knowledge of adult PE.

And as food manufacturers reformulate products to make them healthier, driven by consumer behaviour and legislative demands, the study has the potential to inform possible treatment strategies that can be used to help increase the variety of foods that picky eaters consume.

Dr Lorenzo Stafford, an olfactory (sense of smell) researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Having restricted diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies as well as health problems like heart disease, poor bone health and dental issues. There is also a social cost because normally enjoyable moments between family members can easily turn into stressful, anxious, and conflict-causing situations when picky eaters feel ashamed or pressured to eat food.

“That is why it’s important to understand the factors that act to ‘push and pull’ this behaviour.”

The study is believed to be the first to provide insight into the interaction between colour and taste perception in adult picky and non-picky eaters and reveal a difference in the way that colour affects the perception of food in picky eaters. 

It recommends further research to see if these findings extend beyond the food and colours tested here. 

“This knowledge could be useful for those trying to expand the repertoire of foods,”​ added Dr Stafford.

“For example, if you wanted to encourage a picky eater to try more vegetables well known to be viewed as bitter, you could attempt to serve them on a plate or bowl that is known to increase sweetness. 

“Through further research we could determine ways to help positively affect a person’s diet, and as a result their mental and physical health.” 


How colour influences taste perception in adult picky eaters

Food Quality and Preference

DOI: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2022.104763 

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