Quick Reformulation Win: Optimise the Colour of Food

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Sensory scientists are helping manufacturers utilise the colour of foods and beverages to influence product selection and enhance taste perception

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Before selecting a food or beverage label to examine, consumers must first find visual appeal in a food’s appearance.
  • The colour of food—especially desserts and beverages with bright and novel colours—can sway shoppers.
  • The impact of colour goes beyond shelf appeal, influencing taste expectations and perceptions.
  • Savvy manufacturers work with sensory scientists to utilise the colour of food to enhance real and perceived product qualities.    
KerryDigest Full Scoop:

Taste and nutrition tend to be the primary drivers for chefs and food scientists, and consumers say these factors hold the greatest sway over purchasing decisions. But an often overlooked influence affecting sales and satisfaction levels is the visual appeal of a food or beverage product. Before ever smelling, touching or tasting a food or drink, consumers see it. Sensory scientists say the visual information gathered upon this first glance—especially surrounding the colour of food—can inspire sales, create taste expectations and even influence taste perception, whether a person is eyeing a steak on the BBQ or a colourful rainbow glazed donut in a bakery case.

Colour of Food Influences Intrigue

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of product launches that celebrate novel foods, including foods incorporating the full colour spectrum, from charcoal-coloured ice cream to green shakes, rainbow cakes, unicorn toast, blue wines and golden turmeric lattes. Colourful foods create intrigue, and curiosity can inspire puchases.

“Colour and visual impact are critical elements in food choice and preference,” says Nikos Pagidas, Sensory Manager for Kerry Europe. “A food or beverage product should appeal to our sense of sight because we select, appraise and consume with our eyes, first and foremost.”

Beverages and desserts appear to be the categories most ripe for colourful experimentation. Sensory scientists believe this may be because, while consumers expect a more “natural” colour from products such as pasta sauces and cheese, many sugar-sweetened products already come in a dazzling array of colour and flavour combinations, which leaves more room for experimentation. Brightly coloured foods are also incredibly Instagrammable, a quality that can also boost sales.

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Colour of Food Influences Expectations

Once a consumer is intrigued by food or beverage product, the wheels of expectation start turning, with visual cues helping them to form predictions about how something will ultimately taste. In the journal Flavour, Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, wrote, “To date, a large body of laboratory research has demonstrated that changing the hue or intensity/saturation of the colour of food and beverage items can exert a sometimes dramatic impact on the expectations, and hence on the subsequent experiences, of consumers (or participants in the lab).”

Researchers and sensory scientists have demonstrated the effect of the colour of food on taste expectation. For example, an often-cited experiment on the subject, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, studied the effects of the colour of food on sweetness intensity. Participants first viewed then tasted fruit-flavoured drinks of varying colour intensities. When drinking a red-coloured cherry-flavoured beverage, adult consumers tended to consider the darker product sweeter than the lighter one. However, both drinks had the exact same formulation, aside from color saturation. Consumers went into the experiment expecting the darker drink to taste sweeter, so to them it did. With the global demand for reduced sugar, experimenting with colour could be one way to increase the perception of sweetness.

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Colour of Food Influences Experience

As the previous example shows, expectations based on the colour of food can influence the actual taste experience. At Kerry’s Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Naas, Ireland, sensory scientists found that visual cues coming from the colour of food can alter flavour perception. One example came from studying the effects of RainbowSensations Flakes in snack and confectionery products. When blue flakes were added to gums and candies, taste testers perceived an immediate minty fresh and cooling taste. When red flakes were added, foods were perceived as more spicy. When green flakes were added, testers detected an intense herbal flavour. Yet, none of the flakes used in the test had any added flavour.

A few more examples of how the colour of food can impact consumer expectations and experience:   

  • A study that’s been replicated several times found that when a cherry-flavoured drink was coloured red, testers believed it to be cherry. But when it was coloured orange, or green, testers were more inclined to think it was orange- or lime-flavoured. Therefore, while colouring a food in a hue associated with a taste may create an affirming experience, colouring it a shade associated with a different taste may lead to a confusing consumer experience.
  • In another study, it was recently reported that the arrangement of the differently-coloured components in a meal can determine how pleasing consumers find it. This highlights the importance of having team members devoted to analysing and improving the appearance of food, including its plating.
  • A third study found that colour cues can be used to help control intake and aid satiety. Scientists were able to show that people ate fewer potato chips from a tube when every seventh chip in the stack was coloured red, indicating that such food cues could be built into weight loss products, for example.

As visual impact and colour trends continue to evolve and be made popular by Instagram, product developers can leverage visual appeal for new product development. To partner with Kerry or work with our global team of sensory scientists, contact us.

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