We eat food with our senses. While taste and smell of food plays an important role, most of us also prefer food of certain colors. Doctors recommend that we eat different colored foods, especially fruits and vegetables, so as to get different nutrients. In fact, for better health, we need to eat fruits and veggies of at least 5 different colors daily. We have already covered the color meaning of fruits and vegetables in another article. You can check it out here. Today we will discuss color of foods in general and what they symbolize across various nations. Apart from health, does the color of food signify anything? Let us find out….
Before we talk about individual color meanings of foods, let us discuss some trends first. Today, most of us eat processed foods. Food dyes are readily available and almost all packaged foods contain these. Food manufacturers like to alter the natural state of food and add colors to enhance their taste and also to make them last longer. Much of what we eat would not appeal to us had it been colorless. So the color of food imparted through the use of dyes can be considered as a cosmetic makeover for our food. Imagine a burger without the dark brown patty, bright green lettuce and vibrant red tomato? It would not be appealing at all had it been all gray.
Why are humans so picky when it comes to food colors?
Would you drink blue milk? Eat pink butter or black ketchup?
You may not believe this, but such food fads actually existed though they never lasted. Most of us, as stated above, eat with our eyes. Naturally, our brain tend to form a link between the colors of the original ingredients and those of the final product. For example, we would want our orange juice to be orange in color and would probably not drink it had it been bluish green. In fact most of us would not eat anything bluish green at all with the exception of blue cheese. Blue cheese has to be blue as it gets its distinct flavor thanks to the mold that develops on it.
It is a fact that many autistic kids eat foods only of certain colors and refuse to eat anything in other colors. They generally associate food with its texture. Some autistic children only drink and do not eat at all. Many of them insist on eating the same food every day. This clearly shows the link between our brains and our choices of food.
Food color meanings in literature
Remember Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham? Why did the author choose green color for the food? Did he want the green to symbolize vegetables? What do you think?
Natural food colors
Apart from artificial coloring, many natural dyes have been used since centuries to color food: carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin and turmeric are the main ones.
- Carotenoids– These impart red, yellow and orange color to food. Beta carotenoids are often used for coloring dairy based foods. Eating too much of carotenoid based foods can make your skin yellowish/orange. This condition is temporary.
- Chlorophyll– This pigment imparts green color to plants. Many commercial mint / candy based foods are colored using chlorophyll.
- Anthocyanins– The rich color of certain types of grapes and berries can be attributed to this organic compound. Soft drinks, jellies, corn chips etc are often dyed with anthocyanins.
Food color history
Coloring food goes back way down in history. Aztec tribal people used crushed cochineal insects them to extract red dyes from them. They used these extracts to dye fabrics as well. Today food industry uses these bug extracts to develop deep red dye called carminic acid. Many strawberry drinks are actually made with this dye. If you wish to ensure that your food is free of bugs, watch out for terms like carmine, carminic acid or cochineal as well as natural food dye red No.4.
List of colors and their meanings
Now, let us look closer at food color meanings.
In China, red color stands for good luck and prosperity. Red is a fiery color; red chilies are hot and indicate fire and passion. No wonder red is the color associated with lust, love and libido. There are many red foods in nature including tomatoes, strawberries, cherries and red chilies or red peppers. The latter are believed to be aphrodisiacs as they stimulate the sexual organs and help one ‘get in the mood’. In India, red color is associated with purity. Red strawberries symbolize love and romance. Valentine’s Day is often celebrated with red foods like red velvet cake, cherries, red grapes, strawberries, and so on. In South Africa, red is the color of mourning. In the west, red color is believed to stimulate appetite. No wonder, food industries use this color extensively.
Chinese people consider yellow to be very nourishing. In India, dhal or pulses are yellow in color and they symbolize comfort, warmth and love. Turmeric, a popular herb/spice is often used to impart yellow color to Indian curries. This spice/herb is full of antioxidants and is also used on the Indian bride/grooms prior to wedding ceremony. This ritual is associated with the belief that yellow purifies the body and mind. Yellow color can also be obtained using saffron-an expensive spice added to sweets, milk etc. It is the color of sunshine and energy and also symbolizes hope.
Citrus orange is associated with healthy food. It stimulates appetite and is warm, vibrant and flamboyant. Orange foods are associated with fall or autumn. It is an inspiring and energetic color that acts as a conversation stimulant. Oranges, juice, peach colored drinks, orange salmon etc are some foods linked with this color.
Avoid using blue color in food as it decreases appetite. Apart from blueberries, blue color does not occur naturally in food. It often indicates food that has gone moldy or off. However, blue colored sugar or blue pink sugar packaging is very popular and is associated with sweetness. Light blue denotes health, wellness and relaxation.
White food is often considered bad for health as they indicate high level of processing and refinery. However, white is also symbolic of purity. White also refers to low fat or weight loss items.
Both brown and beige are some of the most common colors we eat today. Meat, bread, and certain kinds of beans are all brown. The deep brown of steaks reminds us of luxury. Brown color is associated with reliability. Since it is the color of Mother Earth, brown is also associated with the wellness industry and organic foods .
“Eat your greens” –ma was right! This soothing color is very good for digestion. Green is also a calming color. Peas, leafy vegetables and other chlorophyll rich vegetables like lettuce, spinach and kale etc are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Green is also associated with health, organic and wellness. Food in green color indicates wholesome, healthy meals.
Purple is associated with luxury, nobility, wisdom and mystery. Cabbages, blackcurrants, figs, certain kinds of grapes, eggplant and bilberry are some examples of purple foods. These are very rich in anthocyanins which may prevent heart disease.
Some more fun facts associated with their colors
- White eggs or brown? Color of eggs is determined by the colors of the chicken’s earlobes that lay them. Brown eggs are pricier because they are larger and the chickens need more feed.
- Green peppers or red? Green peppers contain chlorophyll whereas red peppers are nothing but aged green peppers. The former contain more nutrients and are also cheaper.
- Red or white quinoa?– The former has a crunchier texture that is ideal for salads whereas white cooks fluffier and is ideal for breakfast.
- Red or brown potatoes?– Brown potatoes have greater amount of Vitamin B6. Red potatoes have less starch and more sugar than brown varieties.