The Taste of Color?

by Anne Bennett on April 3, 2011

Imagine tasting one of the popsicles on the right. From just looking at it, what flavor would you think it might be?

Chocolate? Hardly. Lemon? Um, no.

I’m thinking something along the lines of ashes, as in fireplace ashes, although I admit to never having actually tasted them, at least not intentionally. (I am a haphazard fireplace cleaner.)

An article in the Sunday New York Times suggests that color, specifically artificial food coloring, plays a big part in how we taste foods. Take vanilla pudding for instance. When yellow food coloring is added, tasters think they’re getting lemon or banana pudding, despite the fact that no lemon or banana flavoring is added along with the coloring.

Food chemists say that colorful dyes create a psychological taste expectation that can override the other senses. Our eyes become the arbiter of taste, telling us that something is lemony when it is not, or cherry, or lime. Consider how you prefer one “flavor” of Jello over another!

Popular artificially colored foods include Froot Loops cereal, ┬áCheetos and Twinkies. All of the colorful culprits are processed foods. The problem doesn’t exist in most real foods, although those of you who think pickles are real food, take note: the pickling process turns pickles grey, thus they are dyed a bright, appetizing green before being jarred. Ditto with olives.

There’s been a lot of debate over whether artificial dyes cause hyperactivity in children, and despite proclaiming them to be safe, the Food and Drug Administration has agreed to take another look at the possible link between dyes and behavior or health problems.

If you’re not into cheerfully colored breakfast cereals or the kaleidoscopic array of snack foods at your local supermarket, Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe’s may be your best bet. They both refuse to sell any foods with artificial coloring. You pay more, but in this case you actually get less than you paid for.

In the meantime, take a taste test: close your eyes and sample some Froot Loops and see if you can tell the difference between the colorful bits. That is, if you actually have them in your house, which if you’re reading this blog I’d be surprised.

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