Americans’ Bizarre Relationship With the Color of Their Food

Americans’ Bizarre Relationship With the Color of Their Food
Over the past 150 years, food companies and marketers in other parts of the world have taken eating in a more visually thrilling direction. They have used dyes to alter mass-produced foods—sometimes to make them less “natural” looking (cakes with bright-blue icing), sometimes to make them more “natural” looking (pickles made greener to fit with consumers’ expectations).

Both intentions are, upon further inspection, sort of strange.

The first one is odd because it’s not entirely clear, even to researchers, why anything with some abnormally bright colors would be appetizing at all, given that when, say, the color blue appears in nature, it’s often a sign of spoilage or poison. And the second is a paradox: How could a food be made to look “more natural” by virtue of artificial additives?

These sorts of tensions fascinate Ai Hisano, who’s currently a fellow in business history at Harvard Business School. Hisano is a historian by training, and when it comes to the colors of mass-produced foods, she directs her attention toward the period from roughly 1870 to 1940, when artificial coloring went from occasional gimmick to food-marketing norm.

Starting in early 19th century, it became increasingly more common for businesses to manipulate foods to give them a standardized, recognizable appearance: Bakers would whiten bread with chalk, dairy farmers would add a lead compound to milk to make it seem thicker, and, later in the century, meatpackers began to inject red dye into cuts to make them look fresher. (As unhealthy as these “ingredients” sound, the bigger risk was that they were masking mold or spoilage that could sicken or kill.) But one thing that made the revolution Hisano documents possible was the discovery, in the 1850s, of a vivid magenta dye made from the liquid left over after processing coal—a repulsive-sounding (but usually safe) additive that could be synthesized on the scale necessary for mass-produced foods.

Nowadays, manipulating foods’ colors is the norm (and much safer), and even a consumer expectation. Grocery stores know that only pristine-looking apples sell—hence the shiny wax coating that growers apply before shipping. Never mind that more “natural” apples, the ones straight from the orchard, vary in color and often have dents and bruises.

Hisano said, “One of the biggest changes among consumers’ attitudes toward the use of colors happened in the 1960s and ’70s, with the counterculture movement and also a kind of back-to-nature movement, when consumers responded to the use of chemicals, not only in food coloring, but also things like DDT and other chemicals in agriculture and food processing. I think that the ’60s and the ’70s were when consumer movements against chemicals really accelerated.

But, even as that’s happening, artificial coloring is still considered normal. Even today’s conscious consumers mostly aren’t asking for companies not to use dyes at all; they are just asking to substitute synthetic dyes with natural ones. They probably don’t want foods without any colors, which can look kind of ugly.

This reminds me of something that happened with Starbucks. Starbucks was using what is called a cochineal dye, which is a natural dye derived from insects, to color its strawberry Frappuccinos. It’s a natural dye—it’s not synthetic—but many American consumers thought it was gross to use insects for dyeing a milkshake. So they petitioned against using those dyes, and Starbucks started using a tomato-based dye instead. Consumers were happy with that. But tomato-based dye for strawberry-flavored drinks is not really natural—it’s just assumed that it’s normal to color food, as long as the dyes or the ingredients are things that consumers consider safe or natural.”