What we see is what we taste: how color changes taste perception

While I was in Norway, I bought a jar of rosehip jam, the spoils of my first round of supermarket roulette.* It was very tasty – bright, slightly acidic, and not quite like anything else – but I had some trouble enjoying it. The problem was that it looked just like ketchup. Intellectually, I knew that it was not ketchup. I knew that it tasted good. I knew that I liked it. But I still recoiled slightly every time I ate it.

This led me to think about how powerful visual perception can be to the experience of taste. It turns out that psychologists, food scientists, and marketers are very interested in this phenomenon, so there’s some improbable and fascinating research out there. A lot of this research focuses on color. One common test is to add fruit flavor and coloring to a drink, mixing and matching the flavor/color combinations. (Drinks work well because they are easy to flavor and color, and lack other cues – such as texture – that influence taste.)

 *Supermarket roulette rules: go to a foreign market, buy something whose label you can’t read, and try it. This can work out very very well – see Doce de abobora – or…less well. I do not recommend, for example, Russian Vitamin C-enhanced knock-off tootsie rolls.

what we taste

But this is a pretty sneaky way to do a test, right? We expect that color and flavor should match, and maybe that expectation is so strong that we don’t want to go against it even if the “lime” drink tastes pretty peculiar. But what if the scientists running the tests say, ‘Hey, guys, we’re gonna give you some crazy-colored drinks. The color has nothing whatsoever to do with their flavor.” We’d do better, right?

Wrong. We’re still more accurate at identifying flavors when they come packaged in a color we expect, even when we’re told that color is random.

So why is this we taste and we preceive?

-what we preceive

We don’t know. One big unresolved question is how exactly color influences flavor. When taste and color don’t match, do our brains just tend to cast the deciding vote with color? Or does the color change the way we taste things? The result is the same – color influences flavor – but in the first case, our brain simply overrides the signals from our taste buds, while in the second, our brain changes the way we experience the taste itself. There’s a bit of science out there on how sight and odor interact, but the mechanisms behind the sight/taste interaction seem to be largely unexplored.

And of course, it’s always possible to make new associations. While green ketchup was a giant flop**, the candy and Slurpee purveyors of the world have managed to convince us that raspberries are blue. And as all of us, children of the ’80s know, toxic neon green tastes of tangerines.