After the Center for Science in the Public Interest requested a ban on artificial coloring, noting that some coloring may be linked to childhood hyperactivity, the FDA re-examined the side effects of food dyes. This week they concluded there's not enough proof of danger to warrant a warning on foods with artificial coloring. Still it has us wondering why we consume so much dyed food when we can't even taste it. There's already a load of artificial ingredients in M&Ms, Fruit Loops, Jello and Cheese Doodles-do we really need another?
Survey says: yes please, and make it a double. Taste testers who ate Cheetos without FD&C Yellow No. 6, the dye that colors the tips of your fingers for days, found the product bland. Another study found that orange juice tasted better to subjects when injected with a darker, more richly colored orange dye. "Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience," Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists tells the New York Times.
It's been proven in multiple studies that the richer the color of food, the more flavorful it tastes. Hue also dictates the type of taste we can expect. One study mixed up colors with the flavors of a beverage, so for instance, a grape juice would be colored green. Not surprisingly, participants were more likely to think the beverage was lime flavored when it actually was made of grapes. That suggests our eyes can override our taste-buds when colors are particularly pronounced.
"We associate certain colors with taste: red and orange are sweet, green and yellow are sour, white is salty," writes Martin Lindstrom, in his book Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy. "The use of taste to support products is by its nature very limited."
Orange, yellow, red and even brown are the most popular dyes used too make food look more delicious. But not all coloring hits the sweet spot. One famous experiment in the 1970's had diners nomming on steak in the dark. When the lights went up, they were horrified to discover their steak was blue, and later complained of nausea. Bottom line: we don't like it when our food is blue, unless it's an M&M, a Skittle or maybe, a blueberry.
There may be a survivalist reason we react so strongly to color in our food: back when we were hunter-gatherers we used to rely on color to indicate whether food was fresh. It's a trait we've carried over from our ancestors, but it's not doing us much good anymore. These days, a growing number of products are being enhanced with artificial color; even certain meats and fish are treated to look brighter and as a result fresher. Some farmed salmon is dyed pink, a color only wild salmon develops from eating krill. Meat manufacturers are also known to inject beef and pork with carbon monoxide to preserve a pinkish-hue, that doesn't accurately reflect the freshness of the product.
"Color may not directly affect how a food tastes, but it definitely affects how we perceive the taste," writes food blogger Allison Ford. "When a manufacturer is trying to subtly encourage a specific flavor, the easiest way to do that is to give the food a particular color."
Essentially, we're just fooling ourselves. That doesn't mean we have to stop, we just have to fool ourselves more naturally. If you're worried about eating too many dyed products, consider a few alternatives to your favorite colorful foods.