Eat the Rainbow: How Color Affects the Way We Eat
There’s a reason pink icing sparks joy.
Published Apr 23, 2019 7:00 AM
If you’re anything like most people, you might not think about how color impacts the way we eat. Sure, we know in the broadest sense that the healthiest foods are the most colorful, but who has time to spend agonizing over finding complementary plate colors for your weeknight dinner? After all, a salad will deliver the same amount of nutrients whether it is served in a plain white bowl or a terra-cotta pink ceramic dish. The only discernible difference may be that one vessel is dishwasher-safe. When food is an afterthought, as can be the case when you have a busy schedule and limited time to cook, it’s easy to overlook the psychological correlations between what you eat and what you see. But color can seriously influence your dining experience even if it’s a simple afternoon snack, so we thought we’d tap a few experts to learn more about its relationship to food.
For one, we eat with our eyes, and first impressions of a meal have a lot to do with color. “People associate pinkish-red with sweet, blue and white with salt, yellow and green with sour, and brownish black with bitter,” explains professor Charles Spence, whose book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, is a leader in the field of sensory science. A recent report by Spence even found that different-colored coffee cups impacted the way survey participants tasted the coffee.
On a less scientific note, color and food remain deeply linked because both are such personal experiences—everyone has a favorite dish from their childhood, for example, and everyone has their own visceral, individualistic reactions to specific hues. For Lee Eiseman, color specialist and consultant for Pantone, it can all be explained with birthday cake.
“You can look at pink icing on a birthday cake and almost taste the fact that it’s going to be sweet,” she says. “Some of that is because of association: It goes back to when you were little and you went to birthday parties and were served a big slice of cake with pink icing on it. That’s a learned response. Of course, there’s quite a spectrum, so it’s also a very personal reaction, but there’s a general concept that overarches each color family.”
In terms of why this is relevant to day-to-day culinary adventures, the answer is twofold. First of all, it’s all in the presentation: If you’re a frequent entertainer or maybe just deal with picky eaters at home, you can use color to manipulate the senses. While each color triggers different reactions from different people—someone who loved pink birthday cake will likely view the color in a different light than someone who once overdosed on pink cotton candy and forever associates it with nausea—there are general connotations with each color that prove true across the board. Eiseman recommends using the color wheel to plate complementary hues and make whatever you’re serving all the more appetizing.
“If you put complementary colors against a white plate, it’s really going to make a statement: Red is never going to look redder than when it’s next to green, and green is never going to look greener than when it’s next to red,” says Eiseman.
Oh, and the myth about blue colors suppressing appetite? It’s just that: a myth. “In more recent studies, that hasn’t been found to be true,” continues Eiseman. “Blue is actually one of the top sellers in dinnerware around the world.”
Secondly, the color-food relationship is important for those suffering from cooking fatigue. If your own weeknight dinner rotation could use a serious refresh, injecting some vibrancy into it could transform the way you think about cooking, taking it from a chore you do because, well, you need to eat to something you enjoy and may even view as a creative outlet. Eden Grinshpan, cofounder and chef at NYC restaurant Dez, lives by a “happy food, happy people” motto and as such, her dishes are a technicolor treat for the eyes. From turmeric cookies with a rose glaze to hot-pink beet hummus, she’s all about using naturally derived colors to make people happy through food.
“Color should be one of the first things you notice about a plate,” says the chef, noting that infusing a pop of brightness into your dish doesn’t have to be an extravagant affair. “One of my favorite things to do is roast beets and serve them on top of a tzatziki; just seeing the beet color bleed onto the white is so gorgeous. It’s super simple, but when you’ve taken that extra time to treat yourself by making something look beautiful, it’s a happier way to eat.”
Whether you’re looking to cure your cooking fatigue or to simply indulge in a bit of sensory-driven gastronomy, keep reading to see how some of the most basic colors influence your food.
Good for: When you want to make someone hungry. Shocking and saturated, red makes an instant statement any way you cook with it. According to Eiseman, the reason for this is purely primal. “Red is mother nature’s signal color,” she explains. “Red denotes a source of food, triggering an appetite-stimulating response because for eons, humans have learned that [red foods] are the things we look for to help us survive.”
Recipe to try: Half Baked Harvest’s Roasted Beet Hummus. Serve with crudites and toasted pita for an easy appetizer that wows and will definitely whet your guests’ appetites for the main course.
Good for: Wellness-driven trend-setters. Given that it’s rarely a naturally occurring color, blue is one of the trendiest colors to try for food, making it a cool (not to mention, Instagrammable) hue to tap into for adventurous chefs. In a 2018 report in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, Spence dove into the newfound appeal of the color blue. The findings? “Blue sells when the natural source of the food coloring is stressed.” Think of acai bowls and spirulina smoothies: When trying blue, aim for dishes with a tinge of healthiness to avoid blue food coloring.
Eiseman agrees, citing the newfound buzziness of colder tones like blue and purple in food. “Anthocyanins, a chemical compound found in purple food, is now believed to be very good for you,” she says. “Today, there is more blue food than ever because manufacturers have taken advantage of doing something more unexpected.”
Recipe to try: Nik Sharma’s Roasted Purple Yam and Molasses Ice Cream. The blue-purple color of this sweet treat is derived from Ube, a naturally antioxidant-high root vegetable. The healthy edge, coupled with the showstopping hue, will surely make this a cool finish to any dinner party.
Good for: When you need comfort food. Per Eiseman, yellow and cream-colored foods are most strongly associated with having a soothing quality. Think of the tasty (and generally unhealthy) foods you loved when you were a kid: Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream… these are the tempting treats that hold a nostalgic place in everyone’s heart. “I remember right after 9/11, I was doing a talk for a group that had done marketing research on colors, and they said yellow foods were selling more than any other food because people were seeking comfort,” says Eiseman.
Recipe to try: Vegetarian Adventure’s Spicy White Bean & Sweet Corn Gazpacho. Bursting with flavor, it’s a lighter take on comfort food that won’t have you feeling guilty the next day. Make a big batch the night before to bring to work and break the cycle of a sad desk salad.
Good for: Health-conscious foodies looking to branch out. “When you ask people what the healthiest food color is, invariably they’ll say green first. It’s what we’ve always attached to vegetables,” says Eiseman. However, if you think green means being relegated to the same salad and veggies you grew up with, think again. “It’s no longer just frozen peas,” continues the color expert. “We’ve become much more familiar with exotic vegetables.” Today’s greens are fresh, vibrant, and just as exciting as any indulgent ingredient. The key is seeking out the right combination to mix up your healthy routine.
Recipe to try: Broma Bakery’s The Green Thumb Sandwich. Packed with greens and bursting with flavor, it’s heartier than a salad and won’t leave you feeling overly full. In a pinch, it’s a great quick dinner or snack to tide you over until your next meal.