What Does the Color of Your Food Mean?

Background with various food colors of fruits and vegetables

A balanced, healthy meal is usually filled with many colors, especially when fruits and vegetables are included. Oftentimes, we prefer foods of certain colors without realizing it. So, what do the colors of foods mean?

Where Does Food Get Its Color?

Some foods have vibrant hues naturally while others have colors artificially added. Both types may evoke similar feelings, but the way foods obtain their appearances can be different based on how the food was produced.

Natural Colors

A pile of colorful fruits

Foods that don’t have colors added to them, such as fruits and vegetables, get their hues from natural pigments. Those pigments are called phytonutrients, and they can affect the plant’s appearance and health benefits. They’re the same pigments that affect leaf colors in fall.

Here are some pigments found in natural foods:

  • Chlorophyll – Chlorophyll is what makes most plants green by absorbing energy and sunlight through photosynthesis. Any edible green plants, such as vegetables, fruits, and herbs, have chlorophyll in them.
  • Carotenoids – Carotenoids give red, orange, and yellow colors to plants, especially fruits and vegetables. They’re best known for giving carrots their orange hue. They’re stable molecules that can help foods maintain their colors even when they’re cooked.
  • Flavonoids – Flavonoids are a large group of pigments that can produce a variety of colors, including red, blue, purple, white, and yellow. They’re split into two groups: anthocyanins and anthoxanthins. Anthocyanins produce darker colors while anthoxanthins produce bright colors.
  • Betalains – Betalains are less common than the other pigments. They cause colors like red, yellow, and purple, such as the purple color of beets. Humans can’t digest betalains, so eating fruits with those pigments may change the color of your urine.

Processed Colors

Candy in many different colors

Most of the foods we eat today are processed. Heavily processed foods may contain excessive amounts of sodium and fat, but not all processed foods are problematic. One step of food processing is adding dye to the foods, which can alter the color.

Adding dye to foods can enhance their taste and make them last longer. They can also make the food look more appealing. For example, pale or colorless foods might not look appetizing to us, so making them a more vibrant color can make them sell better, even if it doesn’t affect the flavor.

Why Does Food Color Matter?

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, vibrant colors mean more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. So, color can equal nutrition in some instances. However, when it comes to colors added through processing, the appearance doesn’t affect the nutrition. Instead, it’s more for looks.

Even though added colors might not mean healthier, they can still matter for our diets. We make assumptions about how foods taste based on what they look like. For example, colored snacks like gummy bears, jelly beans, and fruit snacks have fairly consistent flavors. We can expect the orange ones to always be orange-flavored and the red ones to be cherry or strawberry. Even if we’re given fruit snacks from a new brand, we’ll assume which ones will taste best based on their colors.

That mindset works for other foods too. We might judge the flavor or freshness of something based on the color. If we’re used to a food being one color, it may not be as appealing if it were a different color. Some people love orange juice, but if they were given orange juice that’s blue or green, they might be less willing to try it because it’s not what they’re used to. So, that’s why companies often color foods strategically.

What Does the Color of Your Food Mean?

Not only do we associate foods with certain colors, but we may also feel a certain way when seeing those colors in foods. Here’s what each food color means.

Red

Red appetizing strawberries

Red is seen as an appetizing color, which is why so many fast food logos use it. In nature, it often represents ripeness or sweetness. It’s also an eye-catching color, so people may be more drawn to red treats than other colors.

In general, red is a color of passion, love, and energy. So, Valentine’s Day treats are often colored red or include red foods like red velvet cake, strawberries, and cherries.

Orange

Fresh orange slices

Orange represents foods that are satisfying and energizing. It makes sense because orange is a symbol of optimism, enthusiasm, and youth. Like red, orange is another vibrant color that can easily catch someone’s attention.

The color orange is also associated with autumn, so it’s common in fall-themed snacks like candy corn and pumpkin-flavored treats.

Yellow

Several bunches of yellow bananas

The color yellow symbolizes happiness, optimism, and positivity. That’s why it’s a common logo color for food brands, often paired with other vibrant colors like red. Yellow foods are thought to be nourishing.

Like orange, naturally yellow foods can be good for your body. However, some people associate yellow with sour things because of lemons. For example, yellow desserts are often lemon-flavored.

Green

Healthy green foods on a table

Most people associate green foods with being natural and healthy. When people think of green foods, they usually picture vegetables like lettuce, spinach, and broccoli. Yet, some companies will add green dyes to foods so people will perceive them as healthier options.

Green fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins and minerals. Green is seen as a sign of growth, health, and safety, which helps support the idea that green foods are good for you. Yet, green foods that aren’t normally green may turn people away at first, such as in the Dr. Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham.

Blue

A wooden cup of blueberries

Blue might be the least appealing food color. Even though blue is a popular color for clothes and art, it rarely occurs naturally besides in blueberries. Blueberries are healthy, but most blue foods decrease appetite because blue is a sign that something has gone moldy. Blue food coloring is also the most likely to linger on your tongue after eating a popsicle or lollipop.

Yet, since blue is a pretty color, blue foods often look the best in photography. Even though people may be hesitant to eat something blue, they will still be intrigued by it. After all, blue is a color of relaxation, security, and trust. Some diet plans encourage people to eat food on a blue plate because it may cause them to eat less.

Purple

A pile of small purple eggplants

Purple is another color that’s popular in general, but not as much in food. Many healthy foods like eggplants, grapes, and beets have a purple hue, but it’s not common in foods. Purple is also darker and not likely to stand out next to red, orange, and yellow foods.

The color purple symbolizes imagination, mystery, and royalty. Naturally purple foods are healthy, but it’s rare for processed foods to be purple. Purple is usually associated with grape flavoring, which is one of the least popular flavors.

Brown

Top view of brown bread variety

Even though brown doesn’t stand out much, it’s one of the most common food colors. Bread, steak, chocolate, and potatoes are just a few examples of brown foods. Since there’s so much variety, brown foods are seen as an essential part of our diets.

The color brown symbolizes reliability, stability, and comfort. So, wellness and organic are two words that come to mind when thinking of these foods. They’re familiar and appealing, despite how simple they appear.

White

Closeup of white marshmallows

There aren’t many naturally white foods. So, even though white is a sign of purity, cleanliness, and perfection, it’s not an ideal food color. White foods are seen as unhealthy because they are often heavily processed.

Egg whites, poultry, and mushrooms are examples of white foods that can be healthy. However, people aren’t usually drawn to them based on appearance alone.

Black

A pile of black soft licorice

There are very few black foods out there, other than blackberries, black beans, and black licorice. Outside of these few exceptions, black is usually related to being burnt when it comes to food, making it an unappealing color.

Usually, black is a color of power, elegance, and sophistication, but those general meanings don’t transfer to food well.

Does a Food’s Packaging Color Matter?

Many companies use the color meanings above to design packaging and logos for food. Vibrant colors like red and yellow are the most common because they’re the most likely to catch people’s eyes. Some brands select color schemes that differ from their competitors to help them stand out.

Here are some examples of what the colors of food packaging can convey:

  • Red – Sparks an appetite and is easy to spot
  • Yellow – Represents optimism or advertises a low-cost option
  • Orange – Represents a good value or a fun choice
  • Blue – Portrays trust and dependability
  • Green – Advertises healthy or organic products
  • Purple – Shows something unique and original
  • White – Promotes simple, easy choices
  • Brown – Portrays natural, organic products
  • Black – Evokes a feeling of luxury
  • Pink – Advertises sweet and sugary foods

Food packaging doesn’t need to use the same colors as the food itself because the packaging color may evoke different feelings. A good combination of properly colored food and packaging can help products sell better.

Color Varieties for Specific Foods

Sometimes the same food can come in more than one color. In that case, how do you decide which one to get? The meanings of the colors may influence your decision without you realizing it. Here are a few examples.

Eggs

Colorful eggs in a tray

Birds lay a variety of colored eggs, and even chickens can produce a rainbow of colors. At the supermarket, the most common colors you’ll find are white or brown, but how do you know which one to purchase?

The only reason eggs are different colors is because of the chicken’s breed. You can also determine the color the eggs will be based on the earlobe color of each individual chicken. There’s no evidence that one color tastes better than the other, but white eggs are common because they’re seen as pure and clean. Then, brown eggs might seem healthier to customers, even if it’s not accurate.

Potatoes

Potato color assortment

Red potatoes stand out more, but brown potatoes seem to be more popular. It may be because brown is familiar and it’s the color most people associate potatoes with. Brown potatoes also have more starch, making them lighter or fluffier when cooked. Red potatoes have thin skin and a stickier texture.

So, what you’re using the potatoes for can help you decide which one to buy. Color might affect how we perceive potatoes, but both colors are nutritious and delicious.

Bell Peppers

Ripe bell peppers in various colors

Bell peppers have a big color variety, including red, green, yellow, and orange. If you don’t eat bell peppers often, you might make assumptions about the colors. The red ones might seem spicy while the green ones might seem healthiest. In reality, all bell peppers are sweet, but their colors can slightly alter their flavor.

Despite the assumption that green is healthy, green peppers have the least nutrients because they don’t take as long to grow. Red and yellow bell peppers are green peppers that have had more time to ripen, so they’re usually sweeter and more nutritious.

Chips

Tortilla chip assortment

When you reach into a potato chip bag, are you a person who seeks out the dark chips or avoids them? Many people dislike dark-colored potato chips because they don’t look as appealing. However, chips get dark because of a chemical reaction from heat. Darker chips are usually more flavorful as a result.

Tortilla chips are similar. Many people prefer yellow tortilla chips over blue ones, but blue ones are slightly healthier because of the antioxidants they get from blue corn. Yet, neither option is very healthy after the frying process, and they taste similar, so most people choose chips based on appearance alone.

Onions

Onions in different colors

Most onions in the United States are yellow or off-white rather than pure white. At first glance, most people associate yellow onions with being more flavorful, making them the more popular choice.

The reality is that white onions have a sharper flavor while yellow onions are more tolerable. Yellow onions are also more versatile and become sweeter the longer they cook. So, while yellow onions are more popular in most cases, it’s a matter of preference. Some people prefer red onions because they taste slightly milder and sweeter when served raw.

Eating a Rainbow of Colors

Filling your plate with colorful foods isn’t just appealing, but it can also be healthy. Naturally colorful foods, such as fruits and vegetables, have more nutrients the more vibrant they are. So, don’t hesitate to add as many colors as possible to your meal. Odds are, it will benefit you!