To Dye For: Why Everyone Is Obsessed with Rainbow-Colored Foods

Fresh summer fruits on sticks

Photo by: Sergey Isaev

Sergey Isaev

Social media’s love affair with rainbow foods — swirly multicolored versions of bagels, pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, cakes, cookies, coffee and more — may have reached its apex. (Or, who knows, maybe it will continue its skyward ascent before eventually, and inevitably, arching downward.)

But what, exactly, is driving the neon-food craze, which, as gluten-free, vegan blogger and cookbook writer Tess Masters recently observed to The Washington Post, seems, with its artificially created spectra, to run counter to our current preoccupation with all foods natural?

Blogs including Gizmodo and Eater have sought out studies that may explain the trend. A few takeaways:

Color is closely linked with our perception of taste.

A 2015 study indicates that we associate individual hues with specific flavors, although these color-taste relationships may differ by culture. For instance, people in many regions expect black food to taste bitter and red foods to be sweet.

Most of us expect yellow foods to be sour, like lemons, and white foods to be salty, like, you know, salt. In the United States, however, we expect green foods to taste sour; in India the expectation is that green foods will be sweet.

Rainbow Layer Cake

Photo by: Jackie Alpers ©Copyright 2012 Jackie Alpers - All rights reserved

Jackie Alpers, Copyright 2012 Jackie Alpers - All rights reserved

Our expectations about color can affect how food tastes to us.

A 2008 study found that people who expected red and orange Smarties to taste different from one another were more likely to perceive that they did taste different. “People’s expectations concerning color-flavor associations can modulate their flavor discrimination responses, even for a familiar food product such as Smarties,” the authors concluded.

Rainbow Ribbon Cake

Color variety in our foods can influence how satisfying we find it.

A 2014 study indicates that eating a variety of colors can make food seem more exciting — and may actually prompt us to eat more. “It has been shown that not only the colour itself, but also the variety and the arrangement of the differently-coloured components in a meal influence consumers’ ratings of the pleasantness of a meal (across time) and, to a certain extent, might even affect their consumption behaviour as well,” the authors of that study suggest.

But why are we having a penchant for prismatic foods at this very moment in time?

“I would say it is the natural result of [a] playful approach to deconstructing food, thinking about eye-appeal as essential part of enjoyment translated to mass market,” Charles Spence, the Oxford University professor of experimental psychology who was the lead author of the aforementioned 2015 study on color and food, recently told Gizmodo. He also cited that Americans are in the midst of a novelty-food moment.

Here are a few fun rainbow recipes to try:

Rainbow Layer Cake

Rainbow Ribbon Cake

Four-Layer Rainbow Birthday Cake

Rainbow Shots

Rainbow Cookies

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