Has anyone ever died your scrambled eggs green for St. Patrick’s day? It is an experience that won’t quickly be forgotten. When foods are the “wrong” color it can be weird, surprising, even disorienting. But why, exactly, is the color of our food so important to us? To inaugurate my new color-themed series of recipes, I’ve gathered together a few compelling snippets of food/color theory.

I was recently browsing through some food photographs, when I was stopped by a black and white picture of a cake. It took me a minute to figure out what was bothering me–  there wasn’t anything wrong with the cake. It was the absence of color that was disturbing. I know I’m accustomed to beautiful, brightly colored photos of food, but I’m not alone at being troubled by lack of color in food. In An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks describes a patient whose brain injury left him unable to see any colors,  just like a black and white photograph. This patient had a very difficult time adjusting to his new colorless world, and one of those difficulties was with food. “He found foods disgusting dues to their greyish, dead appearance and had to close his eyes to eat. ” he turned increasingly to black and white foods– to black olives and white rice, black coffee and yogurt. These at least appeared relatively normal,”. I did a little experiment with some of my own food photographs  (ahem, the slideshow you see now). It’s amazing how strange the colorless foods look. Without color, I have a hard time identifying the cherry tomatoes as tomatoes. And there seems to be a sense that the picture is coming to life when the color is restored. Color is tied to how we identify food, and has a huge impact on making food palatable. So the absence of color can be upsetting.

And there’s an interesting biological connection that might explain some of our preference for brightly colored food.  In some fruits, changes in ripening fruit color are tied to the plant’s reproduction. In the beginning of his fascinating discussion of plant domestication in Guns, Germs, and Steel,  Jared Diamond gives a succinct and brilliant explanation of the benefits to the strawberry plant, of it’s color change.   “When strawberry seeds are still young and not yet ready to be planted, the surrounding fruit is green, sour, and hard. When the seeds finally mature, the berries turn red, sweet and tender. The change in the berries’ color serves as a signal attracting birds like thrushes to pluck the berries and fly off,” So the plant gets the benefit of time to fully mature the seeds in its fruit, and the animals get the benefit of a sweet, palatable fruit. Everyone wins. And the big indicator is color: just wait until that thing turns bright red, then it will be good to eat and the seeds will be ready to sow.  If you’re about to protest that your mother told you expressly NOT to eat appetizingly red berries, just remember that birds can eat most of those berries, even the ones that are toxic to humans. So if birds are the plant’s target audience, then those attractive holly berries are doing just what they intended.  The intensity of color in ripening fruit is an indicator of both quality and ripeness. Bright, dark red means sweet strawberries or fresh meat. Dark intense green means fresh kale. Point two for color: intense color indicates good quality.

Here’s where things get tricky. Perhaps because of its connection with food quality, the presence of color brings a powerful set of assumptions along with it. In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes about an amazing psychological/taste test. “In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its ‘jamminess,’ while another enjoyed its ‘crushed red fruit.’ Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.” Wow. This one floored me. Wine experts could be easily tricked into thinking of, even tasting a white wine as they would a red. Even for a trained taste expert,  their experience was hugely influenced by the color of the liquid. Color is such a powerful indicator of what you’re likely to taste that  color can shape your experience of tasting.

Given how powerfully color can affect our perception of food, it’s perhaps not a surprise how much effort goes into changing the color of foods. And most of that change is through artificial food coloring. I have a few bones to pick with artificial food colors. Dying food, even artificially dying food is hardly new. In 1820 Friedrich Accum  published exposee on the dangerous substances commonly used as food dyes. Among them: lead, alum, copper and chalk. Dyes were used to cover up the quality of inferior food, or to make brightly colored jellies and candies. Currently the USDA allows 7  artificial dyes for use in food, and the debate about the safety of those dyes is (obviously) ongoing.  Since I am by no means a scientist, I’ll leave it to others to weigh in on the specifics of safety arguments. But I do feel comfortable weighing in on them as a food. I know some people swear that food coloring is flavorless, but I don’t buy it.  If used in any quantity, I can detect a harsh chemically aftertaste. The seven approved dyes do not occur in anything edible in the natural world. So not only are they not appetizing, by my definition, they’re not really food either. As a rule, I avoid artificial food colors. But it’s not because I’m against the fun and playfulness that brightly colored food can add to a dish. Thankfully, there are lots of other ways to use naturally occurring colors of food to make bright, colorful presentations.

Using color as a generative, creative element in food can be a stimulating exercise.  A few years back I helped create a menu of courses organized entirely by color. The challenge brought out some amazing and unexpected combinations.   All of this brings me to my new project.  I’m calling it cooking up a rainbow. For the next seven weeks, I’ll be posting one recipe each week featuring that week’s color. The progression will be as follows: Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. Blue. Violet. Ultraviolet.  No dyes, just amazingly colorful food. As always, I’m trying to stay seasonal and thrifty in my choices. Stay tuned, and get ready for some tasty, colorful dishes.


A short writeup of the wine tasting experiment can be found at Scienceblogs.com.

The photographs of the color-themed dishes are taken by the lovely Jessika Creedon.

The menu for the color themed meal was created in collaboration with the (also lovely) Keren Weiner. You can find her incomparable pastries at Il Buco.

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