by Kristen Shelly
When a banana with vibrant yellow skin and mottled age spots sits in the produce section, it sends a clue to the shopper that this banana is best for baking or immediate gratification. This banana will decidedly not wait for breakfast in three days. Without color, such snap decisions to eat, store, or toss food would be nearly impossible. Appearance is the first thing consumed during a meal, and anyone who has sat down to an otherwise delicious dinner of white rice, baked chicken, and cauliflower knows the added value of herbs or the pop of a carrot.
Vision as a sensory complement to taste first interested me in Experiencing Food through the Senses (MET ML 715). What most caught my attention was how oddly colored foods could captivate or disgust consumers. This led to a final paper that situated and deconstructed the myth of blue food. While writing this, sensory studies formed the bulk of my research: scientifically designed tests and surveys that tease out how color influences flavor. I was struck by how many studies disregard the potential importance of these novelty colors. With all of the food products congesting grocery shelves that boast “fun” colors such as blue-raspberry and pink lemonade, couldn’t these color and flavor pairs form an acceptable response in these studies?
Some more recent work has taken an interdisciplinary focus, looking at culture and age rather than assuming that all participants share the same experiences. For my thesis project I folded this approach into a taste test and survey of common fruit flavors to ascertain color and flavor pairings between a younger and older population. My hypothesis was that a younger demographic with more exposure to novel-colored foods would classify these color and flavor pairs as acceptable or appropriate, despite the labeling of such pairs as inappropriate in many studies.
Well, my hypothesis was wrong! But it raises so many more interesting questions. The younger group more often chose conventional colors for their responses, and with more strength than the older group. For some flavors, the older group lacked cohesion in their replies, with color selections all over the map. Surprisingly, the only novel color pair to take the spotlight was pink with lemon, in the older group. Was pink lemonade more popular in the past? With the semester coming to an end, someone else will have to tackle that. What’s certain is that I will be overanalyzing food colors long after finishing the program.