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Food Colourants

Dr Suess wrote about green eggs and ham. The character said “I WOULD NOT EAT THEM HERE OR THERE. I WOULD NOT EAT THEM ANYWHERE. I WOULD NOT EAT GREEN EGGS AND HAM.”


Well, the reason why may well be linked to the fact that green is not the colour we expect eggs to be and green tends to have very different flavour connotations – green is probably more commonly associated with an apple flavour, or perhaps mint – at worst it if it is a sort of grey-green the link may be to food that is off or past its best.

According to an article published on the Konica Minolta website, while many of us like to believe that we are not easily deceived, our sense of taste is often fooled by our sense of sight. This is because humans have certain expectations of how food should look. When a food’s colour is off or is different than what we expect, our brain tells us that it tastes different too. Long supported by scientific studies, we use visual cues from colour to identify and judge the quality and taste of what we eat.

Eat With Your Eyes

Your taste buds play an important role in determining the four basic groups of taste, which are sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. When your taste buds come in contact with food, they send signals to your brain to interpret flavour. Because we look at our food before eating, however, our eyes send signals to our brain well before our taste buds get the chance. This can predetermine how we will perceive the taste and flavour of what we’re about to eat.

Colour is often the first element noticed in the appearance of a food product. Humans begin to associate certain colours with various types of foods from birth, and equate these colours to certain tastes and flavours throughout life. For example, we may expect yellow pudding to have a banana or lemon flavour and red jelly beans to have a cherry or cinnamon flavour. In fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, we rely on the colour to determine their level of ripeness and/or freshness. If the colour of a food product does not match our expectations, we may perceive its taste and flavour differently – a psychological effect some food companies use to their advantage.

Showing One’s True Colours?

To give the impression of a certain taste, flavour, or quality, food colouring or dyes are added to processed, packaged, and even fresh foods. Adding a red colorant to the skin of an apple, for example, may influence consumers into believing the apple is sweeter in taste. In a study published in the Journal of Food Science, researchers found that people confused flavours when a drink did not have the appropriate colour. A cherry-flavoured drink manipulated to be orange in colour was thought to taste like an orange drink, and a cherry drink manipulated to be green in colour was thought to taste like lime.

Published in Fast Food Nation, a more extreme study dating back to the early 1970s offers some insight into how colour affects our appetite and perception of food. Subjects in the experiment were served what appeared to be a normal looking plate of steak and french fries. The room, however, was installed with specialty lighting that changed how the colour of the food looked. Under this lighting effect, the participants thought the steak and fries tasted fine. Once the effects were turned off and lighting was returned to normal, it was revealed that the steak was dyed a blue colour and the french fries were dyed a green colour. Upon seeing this, many of the subjects lost their appetite and some became ill.

Colour additives are also used to offset the effects of colour loss during the manufacturing process because of exposure to light, changes in temperature, moisture, and storage conditions. At other times, additives are used to enhance the food’s natural colour or to provide colour to foods that are normally colourless. This can be seen in the seafood industry, where farm-raised salmon, typically an unappealing grey colour, is dyed pink to give the impression that the fish is of high quality and very fresh.

The role colour plays in our perception of taste has long been researched by food companies to better understand consumer behaviour and how that impacts the perception of their products. Without these visual cues, our taste buds might get confused and not recognize the lemon flavour in pudding or cherry flavour in jelly beans that we’ve grown to expect. While food colorants have been highly debated over the past few years due to questionable health effects, food companies know that consumers determine the quality and taste of a food product long before their taste buds have had a chance to process it.

Safe to Eat

There has always been quite a bit of controversy regarding the safety of artificial food dyes, however generally speaking all of the artificial dyes that are currently used in food have gone through testing and the largest regulatory agencies, like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have concluded that the dyes do not pose significant health risks.

Some of the most commonly used are Carmoisine, Chocolate Brown HT, Ponceau, Sunset Yellow and Tartrazine. Chemgrit Food is a supplies safe water-based food colours to the food industry. For more information contact Chemgrit Food.

Sources: Konica Minolta, Healthline


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