Color and color perception are integral to a food product’s success. Part of the product development process is to determine which colors, or range of colors, are acceptable to consumers; the next step is to formulate the products to meet those criteria. Research has found color plays a role not only in a food’s likeability, but it also helps determine how much of a food consumers will eat.

According to Debbi Beauvais, nutritionist and spokesperson with the American Dietetic Association, color affects how much people serve themselves. The research was based on the Delboeuf illusion: that the perceived size of a circle depends on the size of the circle surrounding it. “When the inner circle is sufficiently smaller than the outer circle, it appears smaller than it actually is,” explained Satoru Suzuki, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “When the inner circle is sufficiently similar in size to the outer circle, it appears larger than it actually is.”

For the study of color on serving size, the researchers performed a two-tiered study to compare high and low color contrasts with small and large plates.  In high color-contrast conditions of a white plate on a black tablecloth, the Delboeuf illusion was in full effect. People served themselves more than the target serving size on large plates, and less than the target serving size on small plates. In low color-contrast conditions of a white plate on a white tablecloth, the Delboeuf illusion was more or less eliminated. People stayed very close to the target serving size for both large and small plates. The study used an average serving size of about 114g. The low color-contrast group served themselves 74g more on average.

As Fergus Clydesdale, Ph.D., from the University of Massachusetts, explains, “Color plays a key role in food choice, by influencing taste thresholds, sweetness, perception, food preference, pleasantness and acceptability.” Prepared Foods’ R&D Applications Seminars have offered numerous presentations on the topic of food colors. In the presentation “Beta-carotene for Color; Beta-carotene for Health,” Dale Bertrand, technical services with an industry supplier, examined the functions of beta-carotene, an essential and safe source of vitamin A found naturally in orange vegetables and in leafy greens, but also a colorant. It can produce colors ranging from brick red to yellow, depending upon the concentration: 50ppm can produce a pale yellow color, while 3,000ppm yields an orange hue.

Consumers look at how foods are colored and expect certain flavors, explains Glen Dreher, Ph.D., global applications scientist with an industry supplier. His presentation “Applications of Select Certified Organic Colors” at Prepared Foods’ 2011 R&D Applications Seminar-Chicago explored food color options for organic applications, a considerable market judging by Organic Trade Association statistics. (To watch Dreher’s presentation, visit:

In 2010, U.S. sales of organic foods and beverages reached $26.7 billion--7.7% more than in 2009, per the association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey--and far surpassing the $1 billion in sales registered in 1990. In 2010, organic products accounted for roughly 4% of overall food and beverage sales.

Certified-organic colorings available for use include annatto, caramel and anthocyanins, Dreher notes. However, due to the limited supply of certified-organic colors, the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP) has included provisions to the organic regulations that allow non-organically produced agricultural products in or on processed foods labeled as organic (found in section 205.606 of the document). This allows for the use of 19 colorings derived from agricultural products: annatto extract color, beet juice extract color, beta-carotene extract color, black currant juice color, black/purple carrot juice color, blueberry juice color, carrot juice color, cherry juice color, chokeberry (Aronia) juice color, elderberry juice color, grape juice color, grape skin extract color, paprika color, pumpkin juice color, purple potato juice, red cabbage extract color, red relish extract color, saffron extract color and turmeric extract color.

Certified-organic caramel colors may be produced from certified-organic cane sugar, Dreher notes, which ensures they are not associated with genetically modified ingredients. Caramel colors impart a brown hue to foods and have applications ranging from beverages and tea to dressings, balsamic vinegar and snack foods.

In an international consumer survey of 5,000 respondents in 10 countries, AC Nielsen explored consumer preferences regarding natural colors. It found 86% say they pay attention to news stories regarding the use of artificial vs. natural colors in foods, with 92% "concerned about artificial colors."

Does a natural color have an inherent value? According to 88% of those surveyed, natural colors add value to food and beverages, and 78% are willing to pay a premium price for foods with natural colors.

From the February 21, 2012, E-dition.
For more information on attending Prepared Foods’2012 R&D Applications Seminar-Chicago, visit: