By Janine See
We love to eat. We are biologically wired to consume food to nourish our bodies, give us energy to function, and keep us healthy and strong. As time went on, our preference for the things we eat, like us human beings, has evolved. From eating simple meats, plants, fruits and vegetables, humans have evolved to be more sophisticated (and picky) eaters. Food cannot just be nutritious; it also has to be delicious and appetizing. Restaurants that make beautiful plates of food are Instagram-ed, food bloggers are now an in thing, and somehow, everybody seems to think they’re foodies. Our fascination with food and the need to make our tummies happy after every meal are not unusual phenomena. There is a reason why we crave for certain flavors, find some plates more appealing than others, and have personal favorites and aversions.
Our experience of food is brought about by the work of many of our senses. We taste food when it enters our mouth and stimulates our receptors on the tongue, and we smell food when the aroma enters our nose. The stimulation from our oral and nasal receptors combine to form what we call “flavor”, which most of us commonly refer to as “taste”. When one sense is blocked, our experience of flavor changes, and it may even be completely removed. This is why we cannot fully experience the flavor of the food we eat when we have a stuffy nose.
Our experience of food is also shaped by how it sounds. Imagine eating a potato chip – how weird would it be if you didn’t hear the familiar crunch right after you bite into it? A study by Zampini and Spence in 2004 explored the role of auditory cues in our perception of the crispness and staleness of potato chips. They asked participants to bite into potato chips while altering the frequency and volume of the crunch they heard, and found that even though the texture of the chips were the same, they judged the chips to be more crisp and fresh when the overall sound level or the high frequency sounds of the crunch were increased. This shows that indeed, what we hear greatly affects how we perceive food to be.
How food looks is also one big factor that influences our experience of food. We expect certain fruits to be of a certain color – bananas should be yellow, strawberries should be red, blueberries should be blue, and so on. When food goes against our expectations for how they should look like, we respond in two ways: either we are so intrigued by it that we want to try it, or we are so weirded out by it that we cannot even imaging eating it.
Recently, a certain company has come out with a line of multi-colored ketchup that they claim will be a hit, especially to the kids. To be honest, this does not appeal to me at all. I like my banana ketchup to be red, like how it’s supposed to be, and I cannot accept it to come in a different color (especially blue!). Imagine putting blue ketchup on your fries. That’s just weird. But I guess there is a reason why the company decided to invest in such products. Maybe they wanted to capitalize on a different kind of visual stimulation (making food art, perhaps?) that can make people want to eat colored ketchup. A lot of moms claim that they have an easier time getting their kids to eat because they can have fun and make art on their food, so I guess we can say that this playful modification of a typically red condiment still has its merits.
Regardless of how much or how little we want to eat food that comes in a color different from what we expect, one thing is for certain – our perception of flavor identity is altered when we change the color of food. Whether colors are enhanced, subdued or completely changed, our experience of food is dependent on what we see with our eyes.
A research done by Maga (1974, as cited by Spence, Levitan, Shankar, & Zampini, 2010) supports this claim. He observed that green-colored solutions increased the taste sensitivity of the participants to sweetness, while yellow had the opposite effect. For sour tastes, adding yellow or green coloring to solutions increased the participants’ taste sensitivity. Red had no effect on both sweet and sour taste sensitivities. For bitter tastes, a decrease in taste sensitivity was observed for red, while yellow and green did not show any effect. For salt solutions, no effect was observed for any of the three colors.
Another study by Guéguen (2003) explored the effect of the color of the glass on the thirst-quenching quality of beverages. Forty undergraduate students were asked to sample the same beverages contained in four glasses of different colors – blue, yellow, green and red. Each participant was asked to sample the drinks in a certain random order, then asked to identify which glass contained the most thirst-quenching beverage. Results of the study reflected that the blue glass was rated to be the most thirst-quenching in 47.5% of the cases, followed by the green glass with 25%, the red glass with 15%, then the yellow glass with 12.5%. Comparing the results based on the coolness and warmness of the colors, the cool colors (blue and green) appeared to be associated with a more thirst-quenching quality versus the warm colors. This may be attributed to the associations people make with color and sensory qualities. Since blue and green were perceived to be cool colors, this “cool” quality was associated with the feeling of being rehydrated or refreshed after drinking a beverage, which may explain why the participants rated these colors higher than red and yellow.
All of these evidences support how our experience of food is shaped by what we sense in our world. Visual and auditory cues, flavor and personal expectations are just some of the modalities with which we experience food. Changing any one of these factors can also change our eating experience, so the next time you’re feeling adventurous, why not try it out? Our parents may have told us not to play with our food, but if it’s for the pursuit of knowledge, how can they stop us?