Health & Gastronomy 29/06/2015

On the psychological impact of food colour

Food colours can have rather different meanings and hence give rise to differing expectations, in different age groups, not to mention in different cultures

Colour is the single most important product-intrinsic sensory cue when it comes to setting people’s expectations regarding the likely taste and flavour of food and drink. To date, a large body of laboratory research has demonstrated that changing the hue or intensity/saturation of the colour of food and beverage items can exert a sometimes dramatic impact on the expectations, and hence on the subsequent experiences, of consumers (or participants in the lab). However, should the colour not match the taste, then the result may well be a negatively valenced disconfirmation of expectation. Food colours can have rather different meanings and hence give rise to differing expectations, in different age groups, not to mention in different cultures. Genetic differences, such as in a person’s taster status, can also modulate the psychological impact of food colour on flavour perception. By gaining a better understanding of the sensory and hedonic expectations elicited by food colour in different groups of individuals, researchers are coming to understand more about why it is that what we see modulates the multisensory perception of flavour, as well as our appetitive and avoidance-related food behaviours.

Since the first reports that changing the colour of a food could change the taste/flavour were published somewhere in the region of 150 papers have investigated the impact of food colouring on the perception and behaviour of participants/consumers. While the majority of those studies have tended to focus on colour’s effect on taste/flavour identification, it is important to note that colour cues influence our food and drink-related behaviour in a number of different ways. Food colouring undoubtedly plays an important role in driving liking and the consumer acceptability of a variety of food and beverage products. And while increasing colour variety in food can lead to enhanced consumption, what we see can also lead to a suppression of our appetitive behaviours when associated with off-colours (or coloration that is interpreted by the consumer as such).
Finally, given the practical difficulties associated with delivering flavours while a participant lies in the brain scanner, it is perhaps understandable that there has not been a great deal of neuroimaging research that has looked at the influence of colour on flavour perception as yet. Whether or not as the result of further neuroimaging, it is clear that additional research is most definitely needed in order to develop a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms underlying the various effects of colour on our perception of, and behaviours toward, food.

Certainly, the expectations, both sensory and hedonic, that are set by food colouring play an important role in determining the final flavour experience and how much it is liked.

Furthermore, the degree of discrepancy between the sensory and hedonic expectations and the subsequent experience appears crucial to the question of whether assimilation or contrast will be observed. Here, recent research has increasingly demonstrated the differing meanings associated with food colour in different consumers. Identifying consistent colour-flavour mappings and training the consumer to internalize other new associations is one of the important challenges facing the food marketer interested in launching new products, or brand extensions, in a marketplace that is more colourful than ever.

di S. C.