The Color of Food: Artificial vs. Natural

vlasic pickles

The butter made from the milk of cows eating rapidly growing Spring grass is yellow, taking on a bright golden hue when at room temperature. Compare this to the white butter made from conventional milk. Eggs made from hens eating green pasture and fresh bugs have deep, orange yolks. Compare this to the pale yellow yolks of conventionally raised hens.

In nature, color = nutrient density. We’re hardwired to respond to color. That’s why artificial colors play such a HUGE role in packaged, processed, industrial foods. I’m not just talking about neon-blue and purple breakfast cereals or the orange of Cheetos. Even seemingly benign foods are full of artificial colors to make them look appetizing. (Yes, I’m talking about the yellow-green of your pickles.)

A recent article in The New York Times reported on the latest news in the world of artificial coloring — how the Center for Science in The Public Interest recently asked the government to ban artificial food dyes.

The piece was full of interesting tidbits about how we respond to color. Tidbits like this one:

“Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life,” said Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “Would we really want to ban everything when only a small percentage of us are sensitive?” Indeed, color often defines flavor in taste tests. When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding. Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge, Dr. Shelke said. “Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience,” she said in an interview.

Isn’t that amazing? We are so hardwired to respond to the color of our food that it actually overrides the flavor of our food. Our brains will literally re-interpret the true flavors present in light of the colors present!

Removing artificial colors will even make tasty, flavor-filled junk food tasteless:

Without the artificial coloring FD&C Yellow No. 6, Cheetos Crunchy Cheese Flavored Snacks would look like the shriveled larvae of a large insect. Not surprisingly, in taste tests, people derived little pleasure from eating them. Their fingers did not turn orange. And their brains did not register much cheese flavor, even though the Cheetos tasted just as they did with food coloring.

“People ranked the taste as bland and said that they weren’t much fun to eat,” said Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University and director of the university’s Food and Brand Lab.

Naked Cheetos would not seem to have much commercial future. Nor might some brands of pickles. The pickling process turns them an unappetizing gray. Dye is responsible for their robust green. Gummi worms without artificial coloring would look, like, well, muddily translucent worms. Jell-O would emerge out of the refrigerator a watery tan.

So I have a question for you. If the color of food is that important to our experience of taste, then why would we ever want to eat food that needs to be artificially colored in order to be palatable? Wouldn’t that inherently mean that the food was total junk?

My homemade, naturally-fermented pickles are naturally green. Yet store-bought, industrially-jarred, vinegar-brined pickles are naturally gray? Shouldn’t that tell us something? On the one hand, we’ve got a colorful, nutrient-dense, raw, living food. On the other, we’ve got a dead, cooked, nutrient-empty edible food-like substance that needs food dyes to be added to it so that we can stomach it’s vinegary flavors. Which would you prefer?

(photo by austins_irish_pirate)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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38 Responses to The Color of Food: Artificial vs. Natural
  1. Jeni Baron via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 3:44 pm

    I wonder if they did that test with people who are used to foods being those colors, would it make a different? If you ate yellow vanilla pudding all your life, would it still taste lemony to you, or is it just being acclimated to yellow pudding tasting yellow? I can’t even think of a way you could test for that.

    • Kelly
      April 30, 2011 | 11:46 am

      That’s what I was thinking too-we’re just brainwashed to expect that flavor, I don’t believe that our brains are hard wired to expect these results though.

  2. Melissa McLean Jory via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 3:47 pm

    Great post! Yuck on the cheetos, regardless of the color. =) I love the color of raw beets, Swiss chard, blueberries, even burdock root.

  3. Christina Fleming Haarhoff via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 3:52 pm

    I did a science experiment in high school on this topic. I served lemon-lime flavored Sprite in cups to my class mates (about 20-30 chemistry students), but I dyed it orange before I served it. I then asked them to write down (without discussion) what it was that I had given them to drink. All but one said “orange juice” or “orange-flavored soda.” I found that fascinating.

  4. Rachel Roland via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 3:56 pm

    Oh my gosh so gross on the pickles – grey! Yuck :( And does anyone remember that clear pepsi? That came out when I was a kid – and I remember trying it and thinking it tasted just like sprite – it must have been the color!

    • Heather
      April 29, 2011 | 6:02 pm

      I remember Crystal Pepsi, it was my freshman year of high school. When if first came out my class did a blind taste test. Everyone could distinguish the generic cola and the Coca-Cola, but no one could tell regular Pepsi from Crystal Pepsi. I remember thinking it would be perfect if it was Coca Cola because I could get the taste I like without staining my teeth (oh, my messed up teenage thinking). However the reason you list is *exactly* why it failed. Unless you did a blind taste test first you would make yourself believe there was a difference.

  5. Food Renegade via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 4:05 pm

    @Christina — What a neat experiment!

  6. Cheryl Marlow via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 4:47 pm

    I have noticed you can’t even buy a jar of pickle relish without it having yellow food coloring it, it’s ridiculous. Why do they feel it is necessary to add food coloring to pickle products.

  7. Deanna Kallay via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 4:56 pm

    Not to mention, most processed foods have added artificial flavorings as well as colorings…brains are being tricked all the way around just so the “food” can be perceived as somewhat enjoyable.

  8. Laura McGowan Chase via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 5:21 pm

    It’s best to eat real foods with real colors!

  9. Mary Light via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 5:29 pm

    I suppose the fake colors in the fake food temporarily fool people into thinking they are eating something actually real. And the experiments in general show how far the culture has strayed from reality.

  10. Edward Verba via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 5:42 pm

    An experiment that wasn’t even designed to be an experiment was on Valentine’s Day when my brothers girlfriend had us all to dinner and pretty much dyed everything red that wasn’t naturally red. Her granddaughter hated the mac and cheese (which is this 4 year old fav food). Made her some regular mac and cheese and she ate it up. It was the color. Have to admit that red cottage cheese was tough to eat. YES, color makes a big difference.

  11. Melissa
    April 29, 2011 | 6:21 pm

    During the 19th century, when canned foods first started being commercially produced, manufacturers used the dyes available to them: typically salts of heavy metals like arsenic and mercury. Can you imagine having those in your food? Needless to say, it led to food processing regulation.

    There’s so much color in real food, why would anyone need something artificial? I think that our brains respond to artificial color partly because they have been trained to do so over years of eating processed foods.

  12. Steve
    April 29, 2011 | 7:18 pm

    WOW. I love this post! It reminds me of the WNYC raido show, RADIO LAB. You guys should link up and talk about food!!!

  13. Kelly
    April 29, 2011 | 8:54 pm

    Wow this is fascinating! I had no idea that they have to color pickles :p

    How sad that we’ve gotten to this point…

  14. Diane Laganaro-Nestor via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 9:00 pm

    It starts with the theory of you “eat with your eyes first.” If you garnish a food naturally, it has the same effect. Pretty it up and you see how much better it tastes!

  15. Diane Laganaro-Nestor via Facebook
    April 29, 2011 | 9:02 pm

    You can do that with real food – - my favorite way to accessorize a plate!

  16. Lee
    April 29, 2011 | 9:34 pm

    The blind taste test is the only way to tell if some people actually like the way a food tastes or if they just *want* to like it because it looks tasty. I can truthfully say I can usually taste the artificial colorings – they do have a taste of their own – and once you stop eating artificial stuff and get used to the taste of real food you can always tell when you accidentally get something fake!

  17. Ted Federoff via Facebook
    April 30, 2011 | 2:59 am

    The money comes out of your pocket when your eyes see something it wants or your nose smells something it wants (less likely to ‘fool’ your nose) or offered a free sample. Best bet, read the label and save your money. Or buy food without labels or barcodes…. great stuff!!!

  18. Kristin Kapp via Facebook
    April 30, 2011 | 4:59 am

    excellent article. perfectly put! thanks!

  19. Kelly
    April 30, 2011 | 11:51 am

    Your quote, “why would we ever want to eat food that needs to be artificially colored in order to be palatable?” is exactly what I was thinking as I read your post. I also think it’s exactly what the food procesors know and this proposed ban has them running scared.

  20. Bryan Lambeth via Facebook
    April 30, 2011 | 3:47 pm

    I guess that explains why commercial cheese is colored yellow with annatto.

  21. Nickole @SavvyTeasandHerbs.com
    May 4, 2011 | 7:25 am

    We have recently started making homemade butter and the natural yellow color is amazing. There is even food coloring in Little Debbie chocolate donuts! I mean, their chocolate is not brown? That gives me the heebie jeebies.

    Nickole @ http://www.savvyteasandherbs.com – Organic Teas and Bulk Herbs

  22. Julie
    May 5, 2011 | 3:14 am

    There was a documentary on this in France a couple of years ago about fruit syrups. Children were given real strawberry syrup in water from natural sources and they couldn’t tell what it was but give them the industrial chemical strawberry and they identified it straight away. The syrups are all clear when they’re made but the food colouring is added before bottling so that people taste what they’re expecting to taste.

  23. Christy
    May 6, 2011 | 10:07 am

    I just noticed the dye in my pickles at the store yesterday – and today I read this post. Glad I choose to pass on them!

  24. Anonymous
    May 9, 2011 | 2:01 pm

    This article is both enlightening and nauseating. I honestly don’t ever want to touch any food that has been dyed, ever again.

    I think I’ll make bigger steps with my garden this year and learn how to can foods.

  25. Laura
    May 13, 2011 | 12:51 am

    An that’s why I only really eat fresh vegetables and fresh meat! Everything as nature intended coloured the way nature intended

  26. lynn
    May 14, 2011 | 1:18 pm

    If I eat ANYTHING with yellow#5 the size of a pin head…My left eye loses vision. Next it has wavy lines and I have to close my eyes. My left hand and fingers go numb. Then the left side of my face. check, nose and tongue go numb. About half an hour later, I get nauseated and a crushing headache hits the right side of my head, I begin to throw up, I lose my speech and cannot say the right words, spell the right words, or think straight. I get dehydrated. My husband carries me out to the car and drive to the ER. They give me a shot to stop the pain..it does not..it only makes me not care if I am in pain. They try to give me a suppository to stop the vomiting, but they burn. It takes a couple days to go away. Then I feel like I have a hang over. I have ADHD. I am 56. If I do not eat anything artificial, ie; no color, no preservatives, additives, processed food, I am totally fine.

    I have had this ever since the 5th grade. I figured it out in my 30′s because of shampoo. The ones that gave me hives, I put on one side, the ones that were ok, on the other and I compared ingredients. The common denominator was yellow #5. In dish soap, dog shampoo, green orange yellow, sometimes in red things. In perfumes!! Can not breathe them. In most makeup…even hypo allergenic make up. ( yeah right)
    pudding, pickles,sake mix,lemonade, crystal light, peppers,( italian beef sandwich at a cook out does not appear to be yellow, but a jar of peppers thrown in the crock pot contaminates the meat and my unsuspecting body) I could go on forever. Whole foods, gluten free, natural, organic coconut oil for body lotion. Good luck finding tooth pate with out yellow #5…. Lysol, lemon wax. anything with yellow affects me…
    just sayin….

  27. lynn
    May 14, 2011 | 1:20 pm

    I’m with Laura….

  28. chris
    May 26, 2011 | 2:58 pm

    To think that ingesting a petroleum product will not cause adverse reaction over time is ridiculous. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a regular food on the market that does not contain some sort of food dye. It is in everything we eat. It is said that an average human being eats about 11 pounds of toxic chemicals each year and we wonder why ADD, ADHD, Bipolar and Cancer are growing at an alarming rate. There is absolutely no reason to add a petroleum product (food coloring) to anything we eat. The only reason the manufacturers do it is strictly marketing related. They have performed studies that show the human brain perceives bright colors like we see in nature, apples, grapes, oranges, tomatoes as good for our bodies. Therefore if they add color to it and make it brighter, human instinct kicks in and our brains crave it. In reality we are slowly killing ourselves and our children.
    I absolutely hate when I read articles that state there are no studies that show food coloring is harmful. That is just the FDA’s way of saying the lobbyist have more power than you do. I have a child that began to act out with aggression and behaviors that were not natural, nor logical. We struggled for years as he was kicked out of daycare after daycare. As a last resort we took him to a doctor who diagnosed him as bipolar and put him on medication. We hated this but at the time; it was all we could do. We did not want him to hurt himself or anyone else. At one point he jumped out of a car at stoplight on a busy street because we passed a toy store and he was mad that we did not go there. After he was placed on medication, his issues lessened but did not go away completely. After about a year on the medication, he went through about a three week period where he slid back into the uncontrollable personality that he had been before the medication. I began to look at what had changed. I realized that a family member had given us a case of the little orange cheese crackers and a case of a well known ranch flavored potato chips (I don’t want to mention names). Our kids at these standard US snacks at the rate of about 5 or six packages a day during those three weeks. I began to put two and two together and realized the common denominator was food coloring. We removed all foods with artificial food coloring, which by the way was not as easy as it sounds, and within a few days our child was calmed, sweet, and caring again. The few times he had a meltdown was directly related to a food with dye in it. One time we could not figure out why he was acting out, all he had was pizza. Then I found out there is yellow dye in pizza crust. Why you might ask? So it looks pretty and your brain tells you it is healthy food. At this point we have backed his medication down to the lowest dosage and over the summer we plan to completely take him off the medication. Without food dye in his system we have seen an amazing turn around in his personality. It is like night and day. If he get any food dye we see aggression within about thirty to forty minutes after he ate the food coloring. I wish the FDA would call me. I could shoe them in just a few sessions what type of affect this has on our child.
    I find it amazing as I look around and kids are cramming cupcakes with bright blue frosting in their mouths at alarming rates, while the parents stand there and say, “I don’t know why little Johnny is ADD. Where did I go wrong?” … Really? I challenge you to walk in your local convenience store and find an item without artificial dye and by the why “Carmel coloring” found in many products is not natural either, it just sounds like it is.
    Wake up America! The FDA has to quite playing the lobbyist money game while our children are the pawns.
    Join us on FaceBook to ban food coloring today! http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/home.php?sk=group_212701462084640

  29. lynn
    July 30, 2011 | 9:53 pm

    I replied above…

    When I figured out that yellow dye was the culprit to my migraines, I called the FDA. No one has died because of ingesting yellow # 5 they told me. So I said…. How bout dying from an asthma attack?? How do you know???? How bout from committing suicide because of the pain..or like Chris’s son..what if he was hit by a car during his compulsive behavior?

  30. Jacqueline
    August 11, 2011 | 9:25 pm

    I’m sorry to disagree about the coloring in the Cheetos. I think these: http://www.fritolay.com/our-snacks/cheetos-natural-white-cheddar-puffs.html (the white Cheetos) taste just like the orange ones and they’re so much less messy which is great. I actually PREFER to have the white ones to the orange ones. Which according to the online label does NOT have coloring added (which doesn’t really mean anything). I hate artificial colors and flavors but hey, I probably would only know if it said it on the package (or of it was neon, and about neon, who said that was a natural thing for food?).

  31. Stan Mrak
    August 16, 2011 | 11:49 am

    Take a lesson from this. Don’t eat any food that comes in a package and has a list of ingredients.

  32. Kerry
    May 27, 2012 | 10:32 pm

    Great post. I’m sitting here drinking Coke while reading this and I just finished eating a Qdoba nachos dish. I know what I just ate is the basest of foods, but I don’t think I had quite the regret that I’m having now, having read this.

    I wonder if they colorize vegetables too, then? Just a bit? Maybe not.

  33. Christie @ Pathtothehalf
    November 14, 2012 | 1:18 pm

    Thank you for this article, the industrialized food world is ridiculous. My daughter is severely allergic to food dye (specifically red and yellow) which opened my eyes to what processed food is doing to our bodies am our kids. We do the best we can at home to avoid processed food, if it must be purchased we buy organic BUT it is so hard at school for her or at friends homes. All of that to say thank you for the awareness you bring to this topic.

  34. Kate
    December 28, 2012 | 2:29 pm

    Just when I needed another excuse to NOT eat Cheetoes. The
    “shriveled larvae of a large insect” had me both busting out laughing and gagging at the same time. Thats what I am going to picture next time I want to snitch one from my husband….

  35. Randy
    January 6, 2013 | 6:22 am

    My nephew is ADHD, and in doing research on his condition we have found multiple sits that attribute food coloring ad being a cause to ADHD. My sister and I have changed his diet to not include food coloring, and we can see a change for the better in his behavior. I am surprised that you did not cover this in your article

  36. Christine
    April 18, 2013 | 2:08 pm

    Thanks a million this question about why the color our food has been something I’ve been wondering for awhile. I wish I knew why they started mass producing all this garbage food in the first place.

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My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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