Does a food’s color affect its flavor? Find out—and trick your friends in the process—with this fun sensory experiment.
In this activity, YOU are the scientist! Your research question? Does a food’s color affect what we think of its flavor? You will try to answer this question by having unsuspecting “subjects” (your friends and family) taste two different samples of apple juice—one plain and one that you dyed red with food coloring. Shhh! Don’t give it away! Will they be able to tell that both samples are the same juice? Or will the red color make them think they’re drinking something else?
Figure out how many subjects you will have for your experiment. You can tell them that you’re looking for their input on some samples of juice. Make sure you don’t tell them anything else about the experiment at this point! You don’t want to sway their opinions.
In a separate room (or somewhere your subject(s) can’t see you), prepare a set of juice samples for each subject. Use tape and a marker or pen to label 1 glass as “A” and 1 glass as “B.” Add ¼ cup of apple juice to glass A. Add another ¼ cup of apple juice to glass B.
Add 5–8 drops of red food coloring to all the glasses labeled “A.” Use a soupspoon to stir each glass until the color is evenly distributed.
Set up your experiment on a table or counter. Create a spot for each of your subjects with 1 glass of sample A, 1 glass of sample B, 1 piece of scrap paper, and 1 pen or pencil.
Call in your subject(s)! Have each of them sit or stand at 1 of the spots you set up. Explain what they need to do; you could say something like this:
You have 2 samples of juice in front of you, sample A and sample B. Take a few sips of each sample and think about their flavors. Do they taste sweet? Sour? Bitter? Does the flavor remind you of anything? Which sample do you like better, A or B? You can jot down notes on the scrap paper at your spot. Don’t say anything out loud about the samples until everyone is ready! You don’t want to influence others’ opinions.
Give your subject(s) 2–3 minutes to do their tasting and thinking. Once all your subjects have finished, ask them to tell you what they thought of each sample’s flavor. Have subjects vote for which juice they preferred, A or B, by a show of hands.
Time for the big reveal! Tell your subjects that you played a (small) trick on them—in the name of science! The juice in samples A and B was the same—both glasses contained apple juice, but sample A was dyed red.
How many of your subjects believed that these were two different juices? When we tried this experiment in our test kitchen, NONE of our subjects realized that both glasses contained apple juice. Everyone thought they were two different kinds of juice! (We must be good at keeping secrets!) Some of our subjects thought the red juice might be strawberry, cherry, or fruit punch flavor. A few did identify the plain (nondyed) juice as apple juice.
Why was it so easy to trick our subjects into believing they were tasting two different juices, just by changing the color? Scientists have been investigating this question for decades, and they still don’t have all the answers—maybe you’ll figure some of them out!
Here's some of what we DO know . . .
As we grow up and taste lots of different foods and drinks, our brains come to associate certain flavors with certain colors. We connect yellow with lemon, green with lime, and blue with . . . blue flavor? You get the picture. And those connections are really strong. When we see a drink that’s red, our brain already starts to think, “That’s probably strawberry or cherry or cranberry,” even before we take a sip.
When we taste a food or drink that’s the “wrong” color, such as apple juice that’s been dyed red, our brains have a hard time ignoring the color and using taste and smell to identify flavor.
Our brains associate certain flavors with certain colors based on our experiences.
An extreme example of how food’s color affects its taste came from a study in which researchers served people a dinner of steak, French fries, and peas. Delicious, right? The only strange thing was that the subjects were eating dinner pretty much in the dark. Then, part way through dinner, the researchers turned up the lights. The subjects saw that the steak had been dyed blue, the French fries dyed green, and the peas dyed red. Let’s just say that many of them suddenly felt very sick, even though they believed the food was perfectly fine—and tasted delicious just moments before. Behold the power of color.
Want to do some more research around color and flavor? Try serving vanilla pudding alongside vanilla pudding that you dyed brown (use gel food coloring here)—do your subjects think the brown pudding is chocolate-flavored? Or try dying lemon-lime soda with orange food coloring—do your subjects think it’s orange soda? What other foods can you think of to try this with?