The Taste of Color

Words by Gina Rae La Cerva / Images courtesy of Charlie Schuck

There are secrets hidden in the colors of fruits and vegetables that we have forgotten. Imagine the deep and particular colors of beetroots, the inflorescences of amaranth, the yellow and pink stems of Swiss chard. Think of black rice, currants, chokeberries, cherry and plums. Imagine blue corn, red cabbage and muscadine grapes. These living tones have taken thousands of years to develop. When you learn this language of color, food becomes a portal into the microscopic and the macroscopic. Into cellular health and function, politics and greed. Into the ancient time of evolutionary desire and our peculiar psychology.

Our sense of the world is continually impacted by the color that surrounds us. This is particularly true of the foods we eat. Before every bite, our brains first make note of the color of the food and prime our taste buds for what we will experience. The site of food releases gastric juices and increases salivation, readying us for digestion. After a colorful meal, the muscles relax, the pituitary gland is stimulated. There is a sense of calm and fullness and quiet invigoration. This feedback loop signals to our brains that eating a perfectly red ripe strawberry or deep purple juicy plum is a pleasurable activity, and so we are drawn back again and again. Color sets our hedonic expectations.

We rely on the information found in these colors, but our sense of perception has become an evolutionary artifact. We are all so stressed out these days that our cortisol levels are out of whack. We are in hyper-alert mode all the time. As a result, our brains shut down the hippocampus. This means we have a hard time making new memories of the things that don’t directly contribute to our immediate survival. We no longer remember the subtle hue of summer apricots. We barely see the green of the zucchini as we throw it on the grill. The only things that filter up to consciousness in our ballyhoo brains are those that are bright and flashy and urgent.

The industrial food system has hijacked our sense of color. Intensifying the saturation or hue of a food primes our brains to expect a more intense flavor. Candy dyed red will taste sweeter than it actually is. Redder salsas taste spicier. In some cases, a more colorful drink will smell stronger. Green foods seem more sour. Farm raised salmon is dyed pink to mimic the vital freshness of a wild caught fish. If your artificial lemon pudding is not dyed yellow, you are less likely to think it tastes of citrus. Every fruit loop tastes the same in the dark. Red dye #40. Yellow Dye #5. Our food system relies on such artificial colors, blasted into our visual cortex at every turn, so that we might taste something amidst the excessive intensity of the modern world.

Consider the red apple. These were bred for the trait of portability in a rapidly industrializing society. Wild apple ancestors were a mix of green, yellow and red, but our attraction to the latter has made it the most iconic and popular. The development of the Red Delicious apple in 1921 created a fruit that cast the rich red tone of a perfectly ripe specimen weeks before it was truly ready to eat. This meant the apples could be picked early and shipped across the country, whatever detrimental result it had to the flavor. It looked ripe but wasn’t.

But there was something else operating at a primal level that led to this red apple. The color red affects our psychology and emotions on a subconscious level. It carries a sexual message. Red flushes the blood. It increases sweat gland activity. It tells our brains to expect fertility, excitement, vitality, stamina and passion. A blush to the cheeks. A blush to more private parts. In ancient cultures, red was equated with power and status. Kings and cardinals, judges and leaders were red-robed on their seats of power. A medieval Christian church bore a red cross. A red apple might arouse a consumer, who purchases more than she needs to satisfy a subconscious titillation.

The modern food system continues to alter the relationship between color and its signifiers. How does this new palette affect our sense of taste?

“The intertwining of color with taste is rooted in evolution and lodged deeply in our memories. Being able to visually distinguish the edibility of food before placing it in our mouths helped us to avoid poisonous foods and seek out delicious ones.”

A fruit is not itself. It is a minute pixel in an ecological tapestry. The color of fruit is a form of attraction, a conspicuous come hither meant to entice seed dispersers. It is a love language in a matrix of plant–animal mutualism. All these luminous hues are just a way for plants to spread their seeds, propel their genetic material forward, fulfill their function to perpetuate the species. How did this riot of color develop in nature? Why did the cosmos decide to use color as the means of communication between plants and other creatures?

Through the alchemy of light, a pigment — a phytonutrient — is synthesized. Numerous enzymes must work together in a choreographed dance of timing and temperature and pH. As fruits ripen, the chlorophyll in their cells is broken down. Animals coevolved to be enticed by this color change. It is a sign the fruit is full of sugars and ready to eat. This means the plant is also ready—its seeds are primed, for consumption and passing through the digestion tract to be deposited somewhere else.

Sometimes dozens of species will be drawn to the same fruit even though they may perceive the color in very different ways. Humans and other primates have a trichromatic color vision — three types of color-sensing cones in our eyes — which allows us to differentiate between various shades of red and green. But this is a relatively new evolutionary development, driven by the color of tropical fruits, and very few other creatures see color the way we do.

Livia Corona Benjamin, “Silvana’s Sandbox I” (2021); Sea urchin shells and cement mortar on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

We can see roughly a million colors today, although they fall into about 11 general categories. An avian color preference is quite unfamiliar — they have four types of cone cells — and can thus see a range of colors we can’t. Some fruits reflect ultraviolet light to attract this kind of sensory ecology. A berry might look black to us but sparkling to a bird. The intensity of an ultraviolet color contrasts well against a background of green for a creature in flight.

Plant pigments are like esoteric spells, complex and mysterious processes that we try and fail to put language to. The plants use these chemicals to strengthen their immune systems, protect themselves from disease, pests, UV rays and to moderate the effects of extreme heat or cold. They even prevent the fruit from spoiling too quickly, before a creature can come along and consume its flesh. In our bodies, pigment phytonutrients act as antioxidants, protecting us from chronic diseases, cancer, heart disease and inflammation. There is evidence that “eating the rainbow” is the healthiest way to live.

The intertwining of color with taste is rooted in evolution and lodged deeply in our memories. Being able to visually distinguish the edibility of food before placing it in our mouths helped us to avoid poisonous foods and seek out delicious ones. Color changes indicate ripeness or spoilage. A strawberry turns red as it becomes tender. A slice of garlic turns blue or green as it sits on the countertop. A rotten avocado turns brown and unappealing.

These psychological expectations rely on us having a meaning connected to a food’s color, one that is often passed down through generations. Once situated, these associations are often impossible to dislodge. If we have a strong memory of a food being a certain color, say the redness of a raspberry, then we expect all raspberries to be that color in the future. A berry that is less red will not taste as sweet even if it is just as ripe and sugary. The more positive interactions people experience with a colorful food, the more they are drawn to them.

The memory of such color associations holds so strongly it may even trick our brains into tasting something that isn’t there. If we expect a flavor based on a particular hue, this belief overrides our perception. An eater might well experience a psychic break rather than believe the taste of something doesn’t match its color. Even the color of a food label, the color of the cups and plates the food is served on, and the ambient light in the room will influence our perception of flavor and our desire to consume a meal. Yellow light may enhance consumption of apples. Colored backgrounds make fresh vegetables more attractive. In a study that could only have been conceived of in the 1970s, steak and French fries were served to participants. The lighting in the room had been adjusted so the food looked normal, and participants thought it tasted fine. When the color filters were removed, it was revealed that the steak was dyed blue and the fries dyed green. Many participants no longer thought the meal tasted good. Some even became ill.

There is evidence that women may be more sensitive to visual food stimuli. Perhaps this is again a consequence of evolution. As the primary gatherers, we had to be in tune with such minute differences between the green of an edible plant and the green of a toxic one. Each creature may bear witness to the poetry of color differently, interpreting it in its own way, but all understand the deeper message, the gift of nutrients. The excitement on the tongue.

“The memory of such color associations holds so strongly it may even trick our brains into tasting something that isn’t there. If we expect a flavor based on a particular hue, this belief overrides our perception. An eater might well experience a psychic break rather than believe the taste of something doesn’t match its color.”

We’ve been experimenting for a long time to entice ourselves to eat. We began changing the color of fruits about 12,000 years ago, with the rise of agriculture. Over the centuries, watermelons have become redder. Bananas more yellow. Eggplants, once found in a spectrum of white, yellow, azure and violet, are now primarily dark purple. Wild tomatoes had tiny green or yellow fruit.

As we domesticated wild plants, we selected for things like less seeds, strong sugary taste and more flesh. Some color changes were the accidental byproduct of such desires. But in general, humans have bred brighter and more standardized colors into food. The red-fleshed peach. The Concord grape. The Okinawan sweet potato. Purple corn kernels and husks. What is the point of a blue fleshed potato or a purple cauliflower? What creature is it meant to entice if not the hungry human?

Throughout history, the elite have used color to enhance their foods to make them more appealing and rare. It is estimated that food colorants were in existence by around 1500 B.C. The Egyptians were fond of dying their food yellow with saffron. Homer writes in the Illiad about similar golden dishes. Pliny the Elder tells of wines darkened by smoke and the use of aloes to improve color and flavor. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Arab cultures were enamored with golden food served on golden plates. The cooks in aristocratic houses of medieval Europe served up rich and ornately colored meals made with natural dyes. Food was colored red with the wood of red saunders, and the roots of beets and bugloss. Sandlewood made for pink food; the petals of irises, violets, cowslips and clove-gilliflowers for purple; brazil wood gave a distinct reddish-yellow; mulberries were used for blue. Orchil, a kind of lichen, was used to infuse syrups, elixirs, wines and oils with a red, violet, or blue hue depending on the pH of the liquid. Turmeric, marigold or safflower created yellow hues that seemed to mimic the gold adornment of earlier kings and queens. Did such gold colored food taste richer? Literally indulging in wealth with every bite taken.

By the Renaissance, it was common belief that colorful food was a sign of both nutritional value and an inherent connection to the spiritual and celestial world. Red grapes imparted healthy blood. Golden foods brought about divine solar healing. Some puddings were dyed in multiple colors and served in a pattern. These jewel-toned foods reflected the period’s richly colored paintings and stained glass windows. Because many of these natural colorants were rare and expensive, and only available to the upper class, color was associated with prosperity.

Sometimes color changes were politically motivated. Until the 17th century, most carrots in Europe were white, yellow or purple. Dutch plant breeders developed ones with an orange pigment to celebrate a member of the royal family, William of Orange, who fought for Dutch independence. As time went on, the patriotic disposition shifted, and the House of Orange went out of favor. The color orange now stood for troublemaking and it was said that carrots sold with their orange roots exposed were provocative.

Artificial colors have also long been used to disguise poor quality food. In the middle ages, cheap bread was dyed white with lyme, chalk or even sometimes crushed bones to imitate the kind eaten by the rich. Butter was made to look more yellow. Pastry was adulterated to look as though it contained more eggs than it did. In Germany, the use of saffron was forbidden by 1531 and breaking the law could result in being burned alive.

“Consumers have come to believe that a uniform shape, large size and bright color are synonymous with quality. Besides a few exceptions, our visual sense has made our diets worse.”

By the 19th and 20th centuries, many food colorants came from poisonous chemicals. Candy was made to look brighter and more appealing to children through the addition of mercury sulphide, copper sulphate, copper arsenide and yellow lead chromate. Synthetic food coloring was found in ketchup, pickles and wine. The U.S. banned injurious artificial colors by the early 20th century. Of the existing 80 dyes used in food, only 16 were considered safe, and only seven actually recommended for use in food. Still, the push towards synthetic colors was hard to quell and new shades were developed that were inexpensive to make.

The coloring of food continues today, but with a return to more naturally derived colorants, and the removal of synthetic dyes from food. Mars Corporation has committed to removing all artificial colors from their “human food portfolio” which spans across 50 brands. Similar commitments have been made by General Mills and Kellogg. Fruit and vegetable juices, and spice extracts will once again be all the rage, no longer for the kings and queens but in the most commonplace of foods. Tumeric to make mustard more yellow. Chlorophyll to green mint ice cream. Cochineal bugs crushed and added to strawberry-flavored yogurt and cranberry juice to make the pinks pop. Spirulina algae derivatives added to gums and candies for blue and green hues.

Consumers have come to believe that a uniform shape, large size and bright color are synonymous with quality. Besides a few exceptions, our visual sense has made our diets worse. Commercial tomatoes have been modified with genes from snapdragons so they have a redder color, are firmer and have a longer shelf-life so they can be transported more easily across the world. But as a result, they have lost much of their sweetness, flavor and nutrition.

And it is not just our sensual, culinary, or political desires that affect the tinted palette of the edible world. Climate change is having effects on biological pigments. As temperatures increase, the process that creates the red in red apples stops functioning. Apples may still taste the same, but their appearance is paled. Will we still perceive them as just as juicy and flavorful, as an encounter with nature’s sexuality? Or will the experience pale as well?

“Perhaps we will return to the past. To the subtle varieties that were once common, when small diversified farms grew a spectrum of colors.”

A food without its color has lost its identity. How have our identities shifted as we’ve brightened the fruits and vegetables around us? Is this push towards color a symptom of our chronic stress? We have become psychologically conditioned to believe a color will represent a flavor, whether that tells us anything of the foods’ safety and freshness at all. We’ve been tricked by generations of visual manipulation. From blue velvet cake and rainbow colored grilled cheese, processed foods seemed to have irrevocably changed the color palette of our diets and given us new expectations. A wacky mix up of flavors and visual presumption. What ancient object memories have we dislodged and replaced with bright flashes of industrial tints?

How do we recover the deep associations of pleasure hidden in the hues of our memories? Perhaps we will return to the past. To the subtle varieties that were once common, when small diversified farms grew a spectrum of colors. No longer will every orchard have Red Delicious. We will expand the rainbow to Black Oxford and Cox’s Orange Pippin, Pink Pearl, and Rhode Island Greening. Mottled and striped. A profusion of hues to satisfy not only our palettes but our sense of sight, too. To embrace to the chromatophilia that has been so intertwined with our survival. To remind us of our kaleidoscopic vision.

We will continue to follow our evolutionary desire to paint unknown colors into the world. To taste more than the eye can see.

Gina Rae La Cerva is a geographer and environmental anthropologist. Her first book, Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food was recommended by the New York Times Summer Reading List and selected as a Best Nonfiction Book of 2020 by Amazon.

This is an excerpt from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print publication by Dims. launching Spring 2022.