12 January - 20 June 2016

Impact of colour on food choice

Two recent studies have investigated the impact of colour on food choice. The first study, published in the journal Scientific Reports by Rumiati et al. investigates whether red/green colour shades of foods are associated with food evaluation and food preference in humans. The second study published in the Journal of Retailing by researchers from Kiel University tested consumer reactions to the colour of packaging and food choice.

Two recent studies have investigated the impact of colour on food choice.  The first study, published in the journal Scientific Reports by Rumiati et al. investigates whether red/green colour shades of foods are associated with food evaluation and food preference in humans.  The second study published in the Journal of Retailing by researchers from Kiel University tested consumer reactions to the colour of packaging and food choice.

The study by Rumiati et al. states "that it is not fully understood how and to what extent colour plays a role in food choice, and in particular whether the visual system guides evaluation of nutritional and appetitive properties of food".  Apart from the effect of colour on taste and flavour identification there have been relatively few studies that have investigated the role of colour in food evaluation. 

To test the impact of red/green colour on food choice and preference, the scientists recruited 68 participants with normal or corrected vision, and asked them to rate a subset of images for a number of factors including arousal, perceived calories and work involved to bring the depicted form to edible form. The participants were shown 779 colour photographs: 253 images of raw foods and transformed foods for example banana, tomatoes, meat, spaghetti, and 419 man-made tools and 107 natural non-food items.  The two later categories were used as a non-food control.  Using multiple regression analysis, the scientists used the following predictors for the food items: stimulus size, red brightness, green brightness, blue brightness, high spatial frequency power, level of transformation, work for preparation and calorie content.  They also took into account confounding factors such as age, physiological state and BMI. 

The researchers report “the redder an unprocessed food is the more likely it is to be nutritious, while green foods tend to be low in calories.  The participants in our experiments judged food whose colour tended towards red as higher in calories, while the opposite was for true for greens. This is true for processed, or cooked foods, where colour loses its effectiveness as an indicator of calories.”    The researchers continue by saying “with cooked food, however, the dominance of red over green no longer provides reliable information, which might lead us to believe that the brain would not apply the rule to processed foods.  On the contrary, it does, which hints at the presence of ancient evolutionary mechanisms from before the introduction of cooking.”    The scientists indicate that their results could have an impact on public health, and in trying to convince people to eat foods lower in calories.

The second study also cited by the media, investigated consumer’s reactions to food packaging, finding that a food packaged in light-coloured packaging is perceived as being healthy but light tones tend to signify a lack of tastiness.  In one of a series of six studies, Mai et al. recruited 179 participants and showed them the same herb cream cheese in both light green and darker green packaging.  When there was no actual tasting involved, to mimic when shoppers scan supermarket shelves, impressions were more significant. The scientists report that the pale coloured packaging was viewed by those who were not particularly health conscious as containing a product that was healthy but not as tasty as that in the darker packaging.  Packaging without tasting didn’t seem to influence the health conscious individuals, until they tasted the product and then the package’s light colour became more significant, however this was not seen in the less health conscious participants.

Mai et al. conclude by stating “thus when selling healthy foods to less health aware shoppers, pale packaging can have a deterrent effect.  Employing darker tones could be one way to compensate for a perceived taste decrease.”

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