Think about the color of the food you eat on a daily basis. There’s probably a lot of leafy green, some nice fruity reds and oranges, cereal browns and dairy whites. But how about blue? Okay, maybe blueberries qualify, or if you have an exuberant potato vendor at your farmers market you may be getting some blue-ish potatoes–but in general blue isn’t the darling child in nature’s scheme of food hues. Consequently, we haven’t evolved an automatic appetite response to blue–in fact, our primal instinct seems to tell us to step away from the blue food.
According to color professor J.L. Morton, when our earliest ancestors were foraging for food, blue, purple and black were “color warning signs” of potentially lethal food. Food researchers agree–when humans searched for food, they learned to avoid toxic or spoiled objects, which were often blue, black, or purple (berries, eggplant, etc, aside). When food dyed blue is served to study subjects, they lose their appetite. Personally, I’ve always found blue food too creepy, but I always assumed it was because of the dye–I guess there’s more to it.
Research backs up the idea that certain colors suppress your appetite while others excite it. (And you can imagine the amount of research processed food companies put in to extract such make-or-break information!) Blue constantly wins the least-appetizing color award. Gary Blumenthal from International Food Strategies reports that, “Color and the appeal of various foods is closely related. Just the sight of food fires neurons in the hypothalamus. Subjects presented food to eat in the dark reported a critically missing element for enjoying any cuisine: the appearance of food.
“For the sighted, the eyes are the first place that must be convinced before a food is even tried. This means that some food products fail in the marketplace not because of bad taste, texture, or smell but because the consumer never got that far. Colors are significant and almost universally it is difficult to get a consumer to try a blue-colored food–though more are being marketed for children these days. Greens, browns, reds, and several other colors are more generally acceptable, though they can vary by culture.”
There were a number of studies performed at the University of Washington on how the perception of taste is affected by color. They conclude that people learn and become familiar with specific combinations of colors and tastes. These learned associations may alter our perceptions and create expectations about how a food should smell and taste. In one study where subjects tasted drinks and were able to see the “correct” colors of the drinks, they were always able to identify the taste of the drink correctly.
However, when they could not see the color of the drink, they made mistakes. For example, 70 percent of the people who tasted the grape drink, said it was grape. However, 15 percent of the people thought it was lemon-lime. Only 30 percent of the people who tasted the cherry drink thought it was cherry. Most people thought the cherry drink was lemon-lime.
While blue is considered an appetite-suppressing color, researchers often point to warm colors as appetite-stimulating. According to the Rohm and Haas Paint Quality Institute, red is a powerful color that increases blood pressure and heart rate. It often produces feelings of intimacy, energy, passion and sexuality. It also stimulates the appetite–it is often used in restaurants and is an excellent choice for dining rooms in the home. Yellow is also an appetite-stimulating color as it is associated with energy and happiness. (Hmmm. Red and yellow. Maybe that explains 31,000 McDonald’s locations worldwide?) This is why many designers recommend warm colors for home kitchens and restaurants–not only does it increase the appetite, but it has been shown to increase the speed at which people eat. Blue is rarely recommended: it slows us down and makes us want to go to sleep.
There are a few dieting tricks that rely on color psychology–try using blue plates, blue place mats, and a blue dining area, and even putting a blue light in your fridge. To encourage more regular eating, use red and yellow.