Nautilus

The Colors We Eat

When it comes to food, color is money. Food companies scan their products on the line with custom colorimeters to ensure mathematically consistent hues. Fruits and vegetables are shipped in chemically “modified” atmospheres, because “better stem and fruit color gives better prices,” according to the website of the delivery company TransFresh. Color is judged by a legion of standards all along the food chain. The hue of orange juice, for example, is carefully calibrated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Orange Juice Color Standards (Grade-A orange juice from concentrate has to be “not as good as OJ 5 but much better than OJ 6.”) There are few worse fates, in the eyes of federal regulators, than for a berry to be “undercolored.”

Oranges and berries are just the beginning. The color matching business Munsell sells color standards for French fries, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, molasses, honey, and cherries. Art Schmehling, a manager with Munsell, tells me a product like the maraschino cherry actually has two color standards: One for the cherry after it is bleached to a pale yellow, which is done so the cherry can be properly dyed its trademark iridescent red; and another for that red.

The attention to color is not just for show: For all the talk of the tongue and palate, our eyes are arguably the most important gustatory organ. As Charles Spence, who heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, points out, more than half of our cortical real estate is dedicated to processing vision—just a percent or two is given over to taste faculties (making us rather unique among mammals). The result is not just that color

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