A couple of weeks ago Kraft Heinz announced a contest where winners would receive a limited time kit of its latest man and cheese. The kit would come with a box of mac n’ cheese and a candy flavored packet that will change the traditionally orange mac into a sweetened bright pink magenta color.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but our initial reaction is “ Say what? Mac n’ cheese… pink and sweetened!?” It’s difficult to figure out how this could make sense (beyond this being a Valentine’s Day promotion), or really how it can appeal to the taste buds since we are conditioned to view mac n’ cheese as an orange dish and also as a savory one for that matter.
However, this then begs the question: Where does our expectation of the way mac and cheese should look come from and why is it normal to us for it to be this bright orange?
We Speak In Color
Well first let’s start with the idea that there is a whole psychology behind color and our perceptions. In fact, in the marketing world, specific colors are often used to convey a feeling and evoke a certain emotion. For instance, the color red indicates “ excitement, boldness and youthfulness”, and on the other end green conveys “ peace, growth and health”. We use color as a form of communication on a daily basis, and as humans we interpret it to mean certain things. Which leads me to my next question: How does color relate to our perception of how things should taste? In the case of mac and cheese, is the orange color a true and accurate depiction of the food itself?
Can We Taste In Color?
A 2015 review on how color relates to basic tastes, a series of experiments that did point to evidence that we do consistently attribute certain colors to basic tastes. As the paper further delved into specific experiments, the color red, pink and orange often came up as colors that people associated with sweetness. Now based on this data, the idea of a pink powdered packet that sweetens your mac and cheese makes sense. It may not be the first color or flavor we think of when we think of mac and cheese, but the color and the taste add up. However, based on the same data, something else then doesn’t add up. If we also associate the color orange with sweetness, then (going back to my initial question) why is this bright orange something our mind accepts in mac and cheese?
The answer may be explained by a concept outlined by this 2015 review called “statistical account”, which basically means that we internalize certain data and meaning about color, because it is what we have encountered the most. So for example, we have rarely seen pink mac and cheese on the shelves, but probably can’t peruse the grocery store aisle without running into a box of orange colored mac and cheese. This same concept perhaps goes far back to our predecessors who may have associated certain colors with taste when harvesting. For instance, in many of the studies within the review the color green pointed to bitterness or sourness just like an unripened fruit may first appear green. However, once it ripens it may turn a lovely red or orange indicating that it has sweetened.
The Past May Hold The Key
This idea of internalizing certain colors with tastes, may also have something to do with the fact that certain cheeses are actually naturally yellow or orange. Even though the many cheeses we encounter on shelves tend to be light in color or white, orange cheese is actually not all that unnatural. Infact, according to a 2013 NPR article that dove into the history of why cheese has it's signature bright orange color, the natural color of cheddar was not all that strange as the cows would often graze on grass that what high in beta-carotene which would transfer to the dairy fat and give the finished cheese product this yellow or orange color. The deep orange color that we see now in products like cheddar came from the fact that 17th century English cheesemakers realize they could make extra profits by skimming the fat off the top to make butter, and then selling the rest as a lower fat cheese. The lower fat product would be light or white in color. They then introduced natural dyes like marigold to give this low fat cheese an orange taste that would allow it to pass for a full fat cheese. This was sneaky! Yet, the orange-cheese-dying tradition stuck! This may explain why we have come to accept this vibrant orange color in cheddar cheese and thus in mac and cheese.
Clearly, the idea of eating a sweetened and pink colored mac and cheese doesn’t align with our expectations but based on color-taste experiments at least the color matches the taste. Similarly, one can argue that based on this theory the color orange doesn’t match the savory taste of the mac and cheese that we have all grown to love. However, maybe the answer to this enigma really lies in the past. Since cheese tended to have a natural yellow and orange color back in the day this may indicate that perhaps our taste doesn't exist in an airtight silo. Thus, orange cheese does make sense, and the color doesn’t always imply sweetness at first glance. Rather it aligns with a perception that is deeply rooted in us because that’s how it always was from the beginning.
Make sure to check out some of our colorful sweet and savory food t-shirts!