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Food Quality and Preference 21 (2010) 575578

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Food Quality and Preference

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Short Communication

Art on the plate: Effect of balance and color on attractiveness of, willingness
to try and liking for food
Debra A. Zellner *, Mia Lankford, Lisa Ambrose, Paul Locher
Department of Psychology, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ 07043, USA

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 4 September 2009
Received in revised form 14 January 2010
Accepted 16 February 2010
Available online 26 February 2010

a b s t r a c t
The study investigated whether balance and complexity (increased by the addition of color) in the presentation of food on a plate affect the attractiveness of the presentation much as those factors affect the
attractiveness of works of art. In addition, the willingness to try the food and liking for the food in four
presentations (monochrome-balanced, colored-balanced, monochrome-unbalanced, and colored-unbalanced) combining these two variables was measured. While color increased the attractiveness of the balanced presentation it did not increase the attractiveness of the unbalanced one. Subjects were more
willing to try the monochrome than colored presentations. There was no effect of color or balance on liking for the avor of the food. So, while manipulating color and balance in a food presentation affects its
attractiveness, it does not alter how much one likes the avor of the food.
2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction
Although we think of our liking for a food as being the result of
its avor (gustatory and olfactory qualities) and maybe its texture
or burn, a large literature exists showing that a great many other
factors contribute to our liking for a particular food (see Zellner
(1991) for a review).
One factor expected to affect our liking for a food is its physical
appearance (Lyman, 1989, p. 97). Although it is obvious that we
choose to purchase foods that look good there is little empirical
data showing any relationship between the visual aspects of a food
and our liking for it. There is some research showing that color
inuences liking for avored beverages (Zellner, Bartoli, & Eckard,
1991; Zellner & Durlach, 2003). Appropriately colored beverages
are liked more than inappropriately colored ones. This may be
the result of an inability to identify the avor of the inappropriately colored beverages (Zellner et al., 1991) or it may be due to
an alteration in the perceived taste of the beverage (see Koza,
Cilmi, Dolese, & Zellner, 2005; Morrot, Brochet, & Dubourdieu,
While empirical research on the effect of the visual appearance
of a food itself on liking for it is scant, it appears that research on
how or whether the presentation of the food on the plate affects
liking for the food is non-existent (although its importance is discussed see Hutchings (2003)). A meal begins with the eye with
the visual appeal of the food on a plate, at least when a meal is a

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 973 655 4327.

E-mail address: (D.A. Zellner).
0950-3293/$ - see front matter 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

gastronomic occasion. This is certainly why so much time is spent

in culinary institutes of all types on the importance of presentation
aesthetics (i.e., plating). Within the culinary arts, balance and color
are seen as important factors contributing to the aesthetic appeal
of food on a plate (Hutchings, 1999; Spears & Gregoire, 2004).
When one does an electronic search of the popular literature using
the combined terms food presentation, balance, color, plating and
aesthetics, thousands of sources including books, magazines, and
newsletters, are identied that describe and illustrate ways to use
color and balance to create an aesthetically pleasing presentation
of food on a plate. But we are unaware of any empirical evidence
within the eld of gastronomy science that supports the view that
color and visual balance do, in fact, enhance the visual appeal and/
or liking for food. The present research sought such evidence.
We anticipated that both balance and color would function in a
culinary presentation in the same way that they do when viewers
experience a work of art. The consumer encounters an artistic/gastronomic object akin to a painted still life. Balance has long been
considered the primary overriding design principle for unifying
structural elements within a composition by visual artists and
writers on Western art. A pictorial conguration is said to be balanced when its elements and their qualities are poised or organized about a balancing center so that they appear anchored and
stable. The perceived weight of the elements within a composition
is determined by the size, shape, color, location within the composition, and implied directionality of its elements. There is considerable empirical evidence that balance inuences the immediate and
sustained perception of an art work (see review by Locher (1996))
as well as its aesthetic qualities.


D.A. Zellner et al. / Food Quality and Preference 21 (2010) 575578

One example of the observed relationship between balance and

aesthetic preference are the ndings of a cross-cultural study performed by Lega et al. (2003). They recorded the preferences of educated and uneducated individuals living in Colombia, Brazil,
Portugal and the United States for original balanced artworks contrasted with a slightly- and highly-altered less-balanced version of
each. Although there was considerable variation in the rates of
preference as a function of education level and cultural background, preferences for the original balanced compositions were
typically well above chance levels.
In addition to balance, color should enhance the appeal of a
plate of food by adding complexity. A moderate degree of complexity increases liking for visual stimuli (Berlyne, Ogilvie, & Parham,
1968; Cox & Cox, 2002; Hekkert & van Wieringen, 1990; Imamoglu,
2000). Complexity increases with an increase in the number of elements within a composition. Adding color to an otherwise monochrome presentation should increase complexity and thus liking
for the composition. This is supported by an anecdote in Hutchings
(2003, p. 143) discussing a 1997 luncheon organized by the Colour
Society of Australia. The meal consisted of only white foods and it
was reported that diners found it boring.
The purpose of the present research was to determine if the degree of complexity on the plate (colored vs. monochrome) and presentation of the food in a balanced versus an unbalanced fashion
would affect the visual attractiveness of the food presentation. In
addition the research investigates if any effect of these two variables on attractiveness of the presentation also affects a persons
willingness to try the food, and the foods hedonic value. This
was done by changing the arrangement of the food and the color
of the surrounding decoration (not the color of the food itself).

Fig. 1a. Balanced presentation of the four water chestnuts and tahini. In the colored
presentation the lines of tahini were green and the dot in the center was red. (For
interpretation of the references to colour in this gure legend, the reader is referred
to the web version of this article.)

2. Method
2.1. Participants
Participants were 68 undergraduate college students from
Montclair State University (Montclair, New Jersey, USA) between
the ages of 18 and 24 (mean age = 19 years; 11 males and 57 females). Fifty-two percent of subjects indicated that they were Caucasian, 25% Latino/Latina, 10% African-American, 7% Asian, and 6%
other. The subjects were part of the Psychology Department subject pool and participated in order to complete a course requirement. They were able to participate once they acknowledged that
they had no food allergies.
2.2. Materials
All presentations were placed on Chinet Classic White (17 cm)
disposable plates. Every presentation consisted of four sliced water
chestnuts (365 brand from Whole Foods) with four lines and one
dot of tahini (Arrowhead Mills brand). The tahini was colored using
food coloring (5 drops McCormick green food coloring per 100 ml
tahini and 11.5 drops McCormick red food coloring per 100 ml of
tahini) for the colorful presentations. One wooden toothpick was
put on each plate.
2.3. Design
There were four different presentations. All presentations were
quite simple, consisting of four slices of water chestnuts, and four
lines and one dot of tahini (see Figs. 1a and b). They were intentionally made to be simple so that any increase in complexity
would increase attractiveness. Given the inverted U-shaped function found between degree of complexity and attractiveness (e.g.,
Hekkert & van Wieringen, 1990) added complexity to an extremely

Fig. 1b. Unbalanced presentation of the four water chestnuts and tahini. In the
colored presentation the lines of tahini were green and the dot on the upper right
was red. (For interpretation of the references to colour in this gure legend, the
reader is referred to the web version of this article.)

simple presentation should increase attractiveness. The presentations consisted of two balanced presentations in which one presentation was monochrome and the other was colorful. There were
also two unbalanced presentations, one monochrome and the
other colorful.
2.3.1. Balanced
The balanced presentations (see Fig. 1a) consisted of four slices
of water chestnuts evenly spaced around a plate with a line of tahini between each water chestnut. A dot of tahini was placed in the
center of the plate. In the monochrome presentation all of the tahini was the natural light brown color (a slightly darker brown
than the water chestnuts). In the colorful presentation the lines between the water chestnut slices were green and the dot in the center was red.
2.3.2. Unbalanced
The unbalanced presentations (see Fig. 1b) included four slices
of water chestnuts evenly spaced around the edge of the lower half
of the plate. A horizontal line was placed above the two middle

D.A. Zellner et al. / Food Quality and Preference 21 (2010) 575578

water chestnuts and between the far left and far right water chestnuts. Three vertical lines of tahini were placed on the right half of
the plate. The left most line was at the right most end of the horizontal line and the other two were evenly spaced to the right of
that, above the slice of water chestnut on the far right of the plate.
The dot of tahini was placed above the middle vertical line of tahini. In the monochrome presentation all of the tahini was the natural light brown color. In the colorful presentation the lines were
green and the dot was red.
2.4. Procedure
Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups, each
having 17 subjects. Each group received one of the four presentations. Subjects were tested individually. Upon entering the laboratory, they were given a consent form and asked whether they had
any food allergies.
The subjects were presented with their plate of water chestnuts.
While looking at the plate they were asked to rate the attractiveness of the food presentation using a scale ranging from 100 to
+100, with 100 labeled extremely unattractive and +100 labeled extremely attractive. Next, they rated their willingness to
try the water chestnuts on a scale ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 labeled not at all willing and 100 labeled extremely willing. After
that, the subjects were asked to take the toothpick from the side of
the plate and use it to pick up and taste one of the water chestnuts.
After tasting the water chestnut, they rated how much they liked
the water chestnut using a scale ranging from 100 to +100, with
100 labeled dislike extremely and +100 labeled as like extremely. Subjects were told that they could use any number within each scale. The answers were recorded by the experimenter.


p < .05; estimated partial x2 = .043. Simple main effects analysis

(Kirk, 1995) performed to examine the nature of the interaction revealed it was the result of the color affecting the balanced and
unbalanced presentations differently. The colored-balanced presentation was rated as signicantly more attractive than the colored-unbalanced presentation, F(1, 64) = 7.15, p < .01; Ms = 48.7
and 12.4, respectively. The colored-balanced presentation was also
rated as signicantly more attractive than the monochrome-balanced presentation, F(1, 64) = 5.52, p < .025; Ms = 48.7 and 16.8,
respectively. The monochrome presentations were both given
attractiveness ratings that were between the ratings for the colored presentations (monochrome-balanced and unbalanced
Ms = 16.8 and 19.4, respectively) and they were not signicantly
different from one another, F(1, 64) = 0.04, p > .84. Likewise, there
were no signicant differences in the attractiveness ratings between the colored and monochrome-unbalanced presentations,
F(1, 64) = 0.26, p > .60; Ms = 12.4 and 19.4, respectively.
3.2. Willingness to try
A signicant main effect was found for color, F(1, 64) = 4.11,
p < .05; estimated partial x2 = .044 . Participants indicated that
they were more willing to try the food from the monochrome presentations than they were from the colored presentations
(Ms = 61.7 and 49.6, respectively). The main effect of balance approached signicance, F(1, 64) = 3.54. p = .06; estimated partial
x2 = .036. Participants were somewhat more willing to try the food
from the balanced presentations than from the unbalanced presentations (Ms = 61.3 vs. 50.0, respectively). There was no signicant
interaction, F(1, 64) = .05, p = .82.
3.3. Hedonic (liking) ratings

3. Results
The attractiveness of the food presentation ratings, the willingness to try the food ratings and the liking ratings for the food were
each analyzed using separate 2 (balance)  2 (color) between-subjects analyses of variance (ANOVAs). Effect size measures (estimated partial x2) were calculated according to Grissom and Kim
(2005) and only those equal to or larger than 0.01 were reported.
Table 1 presents the average attractiveness of presentation, willingness to try, and hedonic (liking) ratings of the food as a function
of balance and color presentation types.
3.1. Attractiveness of presentation
No signicant main effects were found for balance, F(1, 64) =
3.08, p = .08; estimated partial x2 = .030, or for color, F(1, 64) =
1.68, p = .20; estimated partial x2 = .010. There was however a signicant interaction between balance and color, F(1, 64) = 4.10,

Table 1
Means (standard deviations) of attractiveness of presentation, willingness to try, and
hedonic (liking) ratings of the food as a function of balance and color presentation
Presentation type








Note: The attractiveness and hedonic (liking) scales ranged from 100 (extremely
unattractive or dislike extremely) to +100 (extremely attractive or like
extremely). The willingness scale ranged from 0 (not at all willing) to 100
(extremely willing).

The ANOVA performed on the hedonic ratings produced no signicant main effects for balance, F(1, 64) = 0.02, p = .88, or color,
F(1, 64) = 0.92, p = .34, nor was there a signicant interaction effect,
F(1, 64) = 0.02, p = .90.
4. Discussion
The results show that color and balance interact in their effect
on attractiveness of the presentation. Color enhanced the attractiveness of the balanced presentation but not the unbalanced presentation. The enhancement of attractiveness of the balanced
presentation by the addition of color is probably due to the color
adding complexity as predicted by studies of artwork (e.g., Berlyne
et al., 1968).
However, the same colored decoration did not increase the
attractiveness rating of the unbalanced food presentation over that
of the monochrome-unbalanced presentation. The reason why color did not enhance the attractiveness of the unbalanced presentation was probably the result of two competing factors. First, as in
the balanced presentation, the color added complexity and therefore may have increased attractiveness. However, this increase in
attractiveness caused by complexity might have been cancelled
out by a second factor, the increase in perceived weight the color
added (Pinkerton & Humphrey, 1974). The colors used would have
been viewed as heavier than the natural light brown tahini. This
would have added additional weight to the right-hand side of the
unbalanced presentation (see Fig. 1b), making the presentation appear even more unbalanced.
This is similar to what happens with artwork where color has
been shown to inuence the perceived weight of pictorial elements
in a composition. For example, Locher, Overbeeke, and Stappers
(2005), using abstract artworks by Piet Mondrian, found that color


D.A. Zellner et al. / Food Quality and Preference 21 (2010) 575578

inuenced the perceived weight of the pictorial elements, in turn

affecting the balance of the visual display. Therefore, in the unbalanced presentation in the present study, the color added attractiveness by adding complexity which was cancelled out by those same
colors also adding to the degree of unbalance. The results suggest
that color can enhance the attractiveness of the presentation but
only if the presentation is balanced.
Color and balance also inuenced the willingness of the participants to try the food. Subjects were somewhat more willing to try
food presented in a balanced arrangement as would be predicted
from the attractiveness ratings of the presentation where color
plus balance increased attractiveness. However, participants were
more willing to try food from a monochrome presentation than
from the colorful one. In fact, they were most willing to try food
from the monochrome-balanced presentation. This does not parallel what was seen with the attractiveness ratings where the colorful balanced presentation was rated most attractive. These results
suggest that although people might nd food on a plate to be aesthetically pleasing, they might not be willing to try that food.
The fact that subjects were more willing to try the food in a
monochrome-balanced presentation might be the result of neophobia. People are much less willing to try foods which are unfamiliar (Raudenbush & Frank, 1999). For many people boring is
better. The colored tahini, while making the presentation more
attractive, also added novelty which might have made the subjects
more hesitant to try the food. The plain light brown color of the
foods in the monochrome presentation was more familiar and
therefore probably induced less neophobia.
Most surprising was the lack of any effect of color or balance on
the participants liking for the food. Once the food is tasted the sensory components in the mouth (e.g., smell, taste, texture) may
override any effect of the initial visual components. So, although
balance and color might inuence our enjoyment of our meal by
delighting the eye it might not have much of an impact on our
enjoyment of the avor of the food itself.
Portions of this research were presented at the 2009 meeting of
the Eastern Psychology Association. We thank Scott Parker for his
helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. We also
thank Rebecca Conroy for her help with data collection.

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