Taste the rainbow: Food and drink that aren’t really that color

Color is a very important aspect when it comes to the human experience of food. You may think that it’s all about taste and nothing more, but all of the senses are involved to some degree. Smell is a big part of taste and the two are very closely related. Touch is also involved via the physical sensation in your mouth. That clam chowder may smell and taste fine and look good, but if there’s sand in it, it’s going to be the feel of it in your mouth that gives it away.

It can also affect whether you like certain foods. For example, while I love the taste of a lot of fruits, I’m not a big fan of the experience of eating them because of the texture. Something about peaches and other squishy fruits, grapes, and strawberries just puts me off, but blend ‘em up in a smoothie and I’m there.

But getting back to color, it can override all of those senses and change reality, especially if something is just the “wrong” color. For example, testing in reverse, scientists died a steak blue and fries green, then served them to subjects under lighting that made them appear their normal colors. The subjects rated the meal — generally, it tasted just fine — and then the special lights were turned off, revealing the true colors, at which point the meal they just ate and enjoyed became unpalatable.

This is because of another very important component of color and food that played into our survival, the same as smell did and does: If the color ain’t right, don’t eat it. It’s almost instinctual. If a food that isn’t supposed to be green turns any variation of that color through blue, don’t eat it. Likewise if any food turns gray, black, or white and fuzzy, throw it out untasted.

It can work in reverse, though, and food companies exploit this as much as they can — not only to get you to prefer their product, but to make the color consistent, whether the taste is or not. Taste and color are so intertwined, in fact, that there are a whole bunch of foods that come in false colors, were so manipulated that we only accept one color out of many, or were forced by governmental lobbying to only show their true colors. Here’s a tour through the rainbow of false-colored food.

Red

Those bright red maraschino cherries that pop up in everything from ice cream sundaes to mixed cocktails aren’t really that color at all. Maraschino cherries originated on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where they were brined in sea water and then soaked in a maraschino liqueur from Italy.

While they were brought to America early in the 20th century, during the Prohibition Era they couldn’t be soaked in alcohol so, instead, an American university professor from Oregon brined them with a calcium salt solution to bleach them white, later poaching them in sugar syrup and injecting them with red dye.

Yes, of course. Americans found a way to make a healthy fruit into a heavily processed and unhealthy garnish for both ice cream and booze. Yay… us?

Orange

(And… the one color I can’t display here!)

Oranges aren’t really that orange and are actually ripe when they’re green but get dyed orange in most places except California, but that wasn’t what I was going to say anyway. And yes, there are no naturally orange cheeses, but since all American cheese looks spray-tanned anyway, that’s probably not worth going into. You can read up on it on your own.

Nope. The real answer is: “What’s up, doc?” Say hello to the carrot, which wasn’t originally orange at all — and is a great example of GMO food that is a staple of organic and vegan markets because all that GMOing was done a long time ago. And yes, selectively cross-breeding plants is genetic modification, just done on a much slower and less reliable scale. The advantage to the latter is that you have much more control over the results you get, and you get them much faster. But in terms of what’s happening in the plant’s cells, there are no differences at all. Two different plants swap different parts of their genome to create a new organism.

Carrots used to come in a lot of different colors, like corn, but the TL;DR of this one is that through a random linguistic accident, the leader of Holland became known as William of Orange (referring to a place, not a color,) and the Dutch were known for growing carrots. A century after William’s passing, they developed and then exclusively grew orange carrots in honor of William, and so a major food preference was born. Would you even consider a white or yellow or purple one a carrot? No. Probably not. What you think of as a carrot is a GMO created in tribute to a monarch. Yay…?

Yellow

This one is a little bit of a reversal because it’s a food that isn’t naturally a particular color, is considered to be that color now, but was barred from being it for decades because of dairy industry lobbying. I’m of course referring to margarine, which nowadays is either golden yellow, paler yellow, or even white.

But it wasn’t always so, and when it was first developed in the 1870s as a cheaper (and, through a modern lens, healthier) plant-based alternative to butter, the dairy industry lost their shit. They tried to limit the manufacturing and marketing, then settled on getting the government to say, “Hey, margarine makers, you can’t dye the stuff to look like butter.”

In their natural forms, butter is yellow/yellowish and margarine is white. The dairy lobby managed to get state laws passed saying that such non-dairy foods couldn’t be dyed or, in the case of New Hampshire and South Dakota, that it had to be dyed… pink.

The government also got into the game, taxing margarine at different rates depending up on whether it was colored or uncolored. You can read about the whole megillah here. The short version is that margarine isn’t naturally yellow, for a long time the dairy industry tried to keep it white, but margarine eventually won.

Green

This one is short and sweet (or sour and spicy) with two things you’d naturally assume to be green: pickles and wasabi. In reality, the former generally isn’t green enough and the latter isn’t green at all because, if you’re getting it in America, you’re not really getting wasabi.

While pickles come from green vegetables (cucumbers) they often aren’t “green enough” after the pickling process, which makes sense, since it involves brining them, and any brining process will bleach things out. What’s odd, though, is that the green color we expect is restored via several yellow dyes.

Meanwhile, what you’re getting in Japanese restaurants or with your sushi trays at supermarkets is not real wasabi at all. Real wasabi is rare and expensive, and even a pound of freeze-dried powder is ridiculously pricey — $187 a pound, or almost $12 an ounce. Forget getting the real plant, ground fresh, because it’s hard to grow, very rare, and once it’s picked, it’s flavor doesn’t last long at all.

So… what you’re getting instead? Horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. Enjoy!

Blue

For this, we only need to go as far as a beverage called Blue Curaçao, which certainly is blue in the bottle but, in reality, is actually an orange liqueur. Going from orange to blue is a good trick whether you do colors in pixels (RGB) or paint (RYB) because, either way, pure blue doesn’t have anything in it to make orange. So I’m not going to investigate too hard to figure out how they do it.

Purple

Okay, to be honest, I couldn’t find a single real food item that’s dyed purple when it’s not originally that color, but I did run across the idea that there’s no such thing as Purple Drank, Grape anything, or so on. In fact, here’s a scary soda fact for everyone: without artificial coloring, every last soda on the planet would be clear despite the flavor, but this brings us back to the top. Sight is just as important as smell and taste when it comes to the flavor of things.

Most purple drinks — not purple. Probably the most obvious one on the list. But in any case, avoid if you can anything called Purple Drank.

And so ends our tour of the rainbow, and a short note for my fans. It’s been a fun series of constant posts since the day after Thanksgiving, but I’ve now caught up to myself. (Hint: the WordPress schedule post feature is amazing) so, anyway, I risk going back to real time, and there’s some real world stuff to deal with at the moment, not to mention it’s my birthday in two weeks, so… if I miss keeping up my trend for a day or two, indulge me. And thanks for reading, liking, and subscribing.

And, as always, if you want to click that tip jar up there and contribute, well… it is almost my birthday!

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