Colour me happy: How food colours affect emotion

25 Mar 2019

The colour of foods affects not only how we perceive their flavour but also how we feel. What does this mean for manufacturers when choosing food colours?

Colour plays many important roles in consumer experience of foods and in their purchasing decisions. Vibrant colours are thought to evoke the idea of freshness, and may be added to make up for colour lost during food processing and storage.

Colour me happy: How food colours affect emotion
Colour can affect appetite and influence mood

At the extreme, consumers are more likely to choose products with very bright colours in some categories like confectionery and children’s breakfast cereal. General Mills even reintroduced a more brightly – and artificially – coloured version of its Trix cereal after consumers complained about the new version’s muted natural colours. In other categories, however, bright colours have had the opposite effect, such as when Heinz introduced a green-coloured ketchup only to see sales nosedive once the novelty factor wore off.

Researchers have been demonstrating colour’s effect on taste for decades: a 1980 study found nearly half of participants thought a lime-flavoured drink was orange-flavoured when it was coloured orange – none did when it was green. And more recently, Oxford researchers have shown red to increase perception of sweetness.

But the role of colour goes well beyond influencing how we perceive flavour, and certain colours may evoke particular emotions and ideas. For example, red has been associated with passion, and yellow or orange may suggest hunger – a combination that many fast food companies have adopted in their logos. Similarly, weight loss companies have used blue shades to help suppress appetite. When it comes to actual food colourings, however, there is no one-size-fits-all colour code.

Colouring company GNT Group has conducted research suggesting that unusual colours may help increase appetite and enjoyment of snacks, and that bright purple colours suggest nutritional benefits. But this is highly dependent on the food category; purple vegetable snacks could look nutritious and appealing, but a purple dipping sauce may be off putting.

Indeed, a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Food Science + Technology found that participants were more likely to have negative emotions, like guilty, worried or unsafe, when presented with brightly coloured dipping sauces – whether or not the colours were naturally sourced. Other the other hand, less brightly coloured sauces were associated with positive emotions, like good, interested and satisfied. Colour was found to have a greater effect on purchase intent than factors like naturalness and salt content.

In categories like beverage and dairy, consumers may be more open to a playful use of colour, according to Sensient Food Colors. The company is among those to have highlighted the use of colour to delight social media users in particular, who may be looking for bold, surprising colour combinations.

For food and beverage manufacturers, the intended effect of the product is all-important when choosing colourings, whether to elicit hunger, satisfaction or excitement – or to attract attention on Instagram.