When I was a kid I begged my mom to make me green eggs and ham for breakfast, but when she served it to me (beside a crispy strip of bacon and buttered English muffin), I refused to eat it. Turns out my childhood aversion to cartoon-colored food wasn’t simply a case of adolescent squeamishness, but a long-ingrained biological response. Oxford University experimental psychologist and food perception specialist (and resident MOLD crush) Charles Spence backs me up. “Visual cues…can set up expectations about what it is we think we’re going to taste and what the flavor will be,” he said in a recent interview with NPR’s The Salt. “And those expectations tend to be a very powerful determinant of what we actually experience.”
So what does that actually means in terms of your tastebuds? Here’s the short version: we tend to think green foods will be sour, red foods will be sweet, and blue foods will just be disgusting. Spence traces these perceptions back to our ancestors, who learned by trial and error that green fruits weren’t yet ripe, red signaled that they were, and aside from blueberries, blue foods pretty much never naturally occur.
But even if I stayed true to my ancestral roots when I pushed away that plate of scrambled green eggs, these color rules aren’t true across the board. Kids apparently loved the green “Shrek” ketchup Heinz released for a limited time in 2000, and commercial candy companies continue to sell sweets that buck biological convention—though that might have more to do with the fact that we hardly expect green, blue, or pink Jolly Ranchers to taste like anything we’d find in nature.
Artist Lawrie Brown explored these ideas in her recent “Colored Food Series” (shown here) in which she paints and dyes foods like chicken, corn, and milk unnatural shades of blue, green, red, and yellow and photographs them against “wholesome” looking table settings. As expected, most people were turned off by the images, but others reacted unpredictably, like the person who thought the purple ice cream reminded them of the “grape toppings” they so love. To each taste bud, his own.