- A new study from Penn State confirms longstanding research into the relationship between color and taste. What consumers see when they eat matters as much — if not more— than what they taste.
- Researchers gave participants different colors of liquid with different tastes — including bitter, sweet, savory and sour. Participants then tried clear liquids with the same taste profiles, and they were asked to associate them with a color.
- Researchers found these associations are easy to learn, and ones that are currently common — like red for sweet or yellow for sour — may not be set in stone. Six in 10 study participants learned new color-flavor pairings after four exposures.
What consumers expect when they see a food primes the palate to taste certain flavors. The strong associations between color and flavor are well established in the scientific community. Research on the subject dates back to the 1970s. For example, consumers expect yellow foods to be sour or citrusy.
Branding, packaging and color quality of the product itself play a big part in creating and maintaining expectations. Food brands have long understood this and worked to establish standards. Federal regulations grade the color of orange juice. Businesses offer color-matching services for companies to select the right hue for a particular product. In some cases, color can overpower other senses and convince people they taste flavors that aren't there.
The Penn State researchers set out to test if they could teach color-taste correlations, and found the linkages could be more flexible than many thought in some cases.
"This might have implications in the food industry if a company were to launch a new flavored product with a color. Some consumers might not learn or accept a new color and flavor pairing as well as others," Penn State food sciences doctoral candidate Molly J. Higgins said in a written statement.
Although it may be possible to radically alter food colors, it may not be advisable. According to this study, 40% of consumers would be left behind, stuck on familiar patterns. That’s a big gamble for food brands to take. Consumers tend to want to know what they’re in for when they select a product — and color is a big part of that. While it's interesting that consumer expectations for colors could shift, the risk of unexpected colors is high for any company.
Many food brands rely on visual expectations to pull customers into unfamiliar products. Take alternative protein: a burger that mimics the appearance and color of a beef patty elicits a different reaction than a green-hued veggie-dense alternative.
But while today's consumer has expectations for flavors of items with different colors, he also has expectations that natural ingredients be used. While these ingredients are often preferable, they present a challenge. General Mills switched out artificial dyes for natural ones in Trix cereal. Customer outrage followed. Many found the earthier tones depressing, despite no change in flavor. Chemicals and all, they wanted the original back. The company eventually switched back, opting to prioritize color.