Michelle Grady discusses how the look of food can influence our inclination to tuck in…
Big food brands have long since caught on to the fact that our appetites rely on our eyes as well as our tastebuds – if you’re anything like me, you’ll eat yourself silly when faced with a bag of rainbow-coloured sweets, or let loose on a velvety-looking chocolate cake. So it comes as no surprise that a great deal of time, effort and money is spent on making sure everything from the packaging design to the colour of the food itself is up to scratch. In some cases, preferable shades even stray from what is natural because this is what consumers expect – I was surprised to discover that yellow food dye is often added to butter to give it that traditional, creamy look. Though after all, dull, anaemic-looking butter melted on hot toast at breakfast wouldn’t look half as appetising. However, this isn’t always successful. Take Heinz’s colourful ketchup flop – despite the claims that the products had the ‘same great Heinz taste’, the public didn’t warm to the green, purple and blue-toned versions of this much-loved condiment. And no wonder – the idea of covering chips in a slimy blue gloop is plain wrong.
Even the surroundings we dine in can make the difference between a rave review and a thumbs-down. Decorate your dining room with the wrong shade and you could be en-route to dinner disaster. As Heinz discovered, blue is an appetite suppressant, most likely because it’s a colour rarely found in natural foods. Good job they went back to good-old red; which although in certain contexts associated with danger, is also the colour of juicy, nutrient-packed produce like tomatoes and strawberries, and so makes us inclined to scoff more. And who doesn’t like a little danger at the dinner table, anyway? Browns and beiges, meanwhile, are generally found in rich, decadent foods and are seen as luxurious and comforting, thus making us more likely to treat ourselves to that extra side dish or dessert – not that I need any excuse. And it might be worth keeping it simple when you make your next plate purchase, as studies have shown that white crockery gives the illusion of a richer-flavoured meal.
All this begs the question: what if appearances are removed from the dining experience entirely? At dining-in-the-dark restaurants like London’s Dans Le Noir, diners have a job to find their way to their table, let alone see the colour of the walls. Many of these blacked-out eateries even offer a surprise menu, where diners have to guess what they’re eating. While I’m not sure blindly chasing food around a plate and feeling around for my wine glass appeals, the novelty of not knowing what you’re eating does sound entertaining.
Certainly, the unexpected can add a much-needed element of excitement to dinnertime. TV chef and advocate of the unconventional, Heston Blumenthal, has built a career on surprising his guests. His meat fruit defies the presentation rules, but that’s all part of the fun. There’s nothing wrong with being creative and straying from the norm once in a while – although it helps if your culinary skills are as good as Heston’s. If not, just remember to get the white plates out – or perhaps even try a bit of dining in the dark.