How Flavors and Colors Work Together in Food and Beverage

by | Sep 14, 2023

Color is powerful. Color draws attention. It affects mood, thoughts, and even jumpstarts entire cultural moments. People will look back on the summer of 2023, and the color hot pink will come to mind because of the Barbie movie release.  

In the world of food and beverage, flavors and colors are essential partners in the multi-faceted product development process. Color can indicate label claims, tastes, and target audience. Importantly, color plays a critical role in flavor experience. In childhood (and for kids of all ages), you’ve probably used color to indicate your flavor choice. For example, “I want a red popsicle” likely means you’re looking for strawberry.

A restaurant in New York City called Dinners in the Dark tested the connections between color and flavor. The owner found the relationship to be strong:

“It’s surprising to me, but people will often guess the right color of things, even if they’re off with the actual food. For a recent menu, we did a corn soup, pureed for a bit of texture, with a ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossom. A lot of people were sure it was butternut squash or sweet potato, so they’re in the orange family. It makes me realize how color really does have a taste.” – Grub Street

Brands striving to make an impact on people through color can explore packaging pathways as well as the use of colors in their food or beverage products. Read on to discover how to incorporate color considerations into your innovation process.

Using Color to Connect with People Through Packaging and Branding

“Packaging can be a theater; it can create a story.” Steve Jobs was right when he pointed out the power of product packaging. While packaging design is often complex, color is a significant component of brand messaging and is a purchase motivator.

Standout Statistics:

In a recent report, Mintel notes the different ways color and design can inspire emotional connections.

    • Nostalgic colors impart comfort through familiarity
    • Bold and bright colors grab attention and excite
    • Muted palettes create calm and pleasant experiences

Mintel notes that “beyond packaging, brands can use the beverage’s color as a marketing tool and a point of differentiation to attract consumers.” The chart below is a fun visual to showcase how color can affect the perception of a brand. Take a look at the brands below and their associated color and emotion, and see if the connections resonate with you.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

In the age of “my phone eats first,” the use of vibrant hues and exciting packaging will take you far with people ready to snap photos of their meals. Mintel reports that “social media has propelled innovative colors, shapes, and textures in food and drink.” People are documenting their meals in ways they never have before via diverse social media channels.

Photo Credit: Innova Market Insights

The shift toward more visual communication creates an opportunity for brands to leverage color through their food and beverage products and packaging to develop viral-worthy offerings. After all, 44% of Gen Z and 40% of millennials find social media helpful in learning about new food trends. (Mintel)

Package of Vanilla Dunkaroos on a teal background
Photo Credit: Mintel

The Relationship Between Flavors and Colors in Food and Beverage

Flavors and Colors

The linkages between flavors and colors are well known. A 2018 Food Dive article notes that the theories around associations between flavors and colors date back to the 1970s. The article highlights the connection between yellow foods and sour or citrus taste profiles as an example, and that’s just the tip of the color block. In 2018, meal delivery brand Hello Fresh released a video series called “What Does Your Favorite Color Taste Like?” 

Photo Credit: Hello Fresh

Innova Market Insights highlights the power of color in food by identifying the value color can bring to the shelf as it often “suggests flavors without specific descriptors.” They also warn that aligning color and flavor is critical to product acceptance. If the relationship between the two elements isn’t strong, people may perceive the flavor using color instead of taste.

Some brands exploring color alternatives of popular products like ketchup or margarine struggled to connect with buyers. People wondered if the taste would change or if the new colors meant the formulation included artificial ingredients.

We know that color can represent the actual flavor, but it can also indicate flavor intensity. For example, Mintel notes that more minimalist designs might hint at a more muted flavor profile. More vibrant colors might have a louder (or sweeter) taste.

Several research studies validate the power of color as an influencer of flavor perceptions.

    • One study noted that a more intensely red cherry drink tasted stronger than lighter-colored options, and deeper colors affected perceptions of flavor quality as true-to-fruit.
    • Findings from an exploration of lemon-lime beverages showed that when color intensified, people reported the drink became sweeter.
    • Research about several food and beverage categories showed all received higher acceptability ratings for flavor when products had color.

Beyond taste, color creates a full multi-sensory experience in food and beverage as people find linkages between color and mood or wellness. In Thailand, for instance, 33% of consumers believe soothing colors in food/drink products can enhance mental health. (Mintel) TraceGains outlined additional prominent and popular color and emotional associations in a recent article:

    • Red – Appetizing because of its association with sweet fruits and ripeness
    • Blue – Instagram-able because it’s hard to come by naturally blue foods
    • Yellow – Happiness because of its bright and cheery nature
    • Green – Natural/Healthy because it is synonymous with nature on land
    • Orange Satisfying/Energizing because of its vibrant hues that evoke vitality

But because colors are often under fire for perceived artificiality, it may be important to your brand to explore natural sources for color. Innova Market Insights notes that colors are among the least acceptable artificial ingredients because they don’t contribute to more essential product characteristics like safety, health, or taste.

box of swiss cake rolls cereal

The desire for naturalness creates an opportunity for brands to play up some connections between wellness and food by selecting ingredients that offer exciting colors and sought-after benefits, like turmeric or spirulina.

Promo images for Gushers, Fruit by the Foot, and Fruit Roll-Ups
Photo Credit: Innova Market Insights

Partner with FlavorSum to Bring Your Colorful Concept to Life!

Whether you’re trying to capture the exact strawberry flavor to match the red hue of your product or you need help figuring out where to begin, FlavorSum can help. You can count on our flavorists and technical scientists as an extension of your team. With expertise in flavor development, application science, regulatory affairs, and insights inspiration, our team can take you from ideation to commercialization faster. Reach out to learn more!