Food and Color: What Does It All Mean?

Every December since 2000, the Pantone Color Institute names its color of the year based on what the color authority believes will best represent the new year. For 2023, Pantone went with Viva Magenta, “a shade rooted in nature descending from the red family and expressive of a new signal of strength.”

For more than 20 years, Pantone’s Color of the Year has helped shape new product development and buying decisions across multiple industries, including fashion, home furnishings, industrial design, product, packaging, and graphic design.

“In this age of technology, we look to draw inspiration from nature and what is real. PANTONE 18-1750 Viva Magenta descends from the red family and is inspired by the red of cochineal, one of the most precious dyes belonging to the natural dye family as well as one of the strongest and brightest the world has known,” Pantone Color Institute Executive Director Leatrice Eiseman explained in a press release announcing the color selection. “Rooted in the primordial, PANTONE 18-1750 Viva Magenta reconnects us to original matter. Invoking the forces of nature, PANTONE 18-1750 Viva Magenta galvanizes our spirit, helping us to build our inner strength.”

Should CPG brands consider the color of the year?

With the exploding popularity of blue food and beverage products in 2020 after Pantone tapped Classic Blue’s selection as its Color of the Year, it appears they should.

“The rise of blue food caught the cultural trendsetters off guard. Yet the ability of a little blue to turn the dullest food into an Instagram-able shot helps explain its surging popularity,” Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, revealed.

Food and beverage products need to deliver visually in the social media age. Millennials and Gen Zers opt for “Instagram-able” foods that offer as much visually as they do in taste. But not just any shade will do. Consumers demand clean labels and natural foods.

But it’s bigger than that. According to Meticulous Research, global sales for natural food colors are on track to increase 8.4%, compounded annually, by 2027, which projects the market value at $3.2 billion by the end of the forecast period.

GNT Group, a natural food coloring supplier, echoes those findings in its latest research, which shows that Gen Z consumers – and their color preferences – are already shaping new product development as part of a trend the company calls “Healthy Hedonism.”

GNT’s data shows that these consumers are already generating new directions in natural color. For example, GNT points out that brands are embracing “cute soft-play pastel shades … to redefine what ‘healthy and sustainable’ looks like. Psychedelic color schemes now work in harmony with mind-boosting ingredients to tap into new-age well-being. Bright, clashing color combinations can also enable brands to create virtuous products that satisfy the desire for creativity and self-expression.”

“Healthy Hedonism resonates with the new generation of conscious consumers who are determined to rewrite the rules,” GNT Group Market Development Manager Maartje Hendrickx explained. “To tap into the trend, brands need to celebrate disruption and adopt a new visual language for products that are both healthy and environmentally sound. Earthy colors are no longer a necessity – it’s time to be bold, be creative, and make people smile.”

Color choices when it comes to food

Color plays a significant role in how we choose our food. It’s often the first element consumers notice in a food product’s appearance. Many studies suggest that visual taste perception begins in infancy and increases as we age. For example, if something is bright red, we might assume it will taste like cherry or cinnamon. If something is colored green, we might expect that food product to taste like lime or apple. And when it comes to produce, we rely on color to determine freshness.

So, aside from expected taste, what else do colors mean when it comes to food?

  • Red – Appetizing: Research shows that red is eye-catching and triggers appetite. It’s particularly useful in packaging design, probably because the color indicates ripeness or sweetness in natural foods like berries.
  • Blue – Instagram-able: While blue is typically the first color to disappear from a child’s crayon box, it’s the last candy standing (sitting?) in the M&M bowl. Why? Because edible blue foods are rare in nature. However, they exist, including blue butterfly pea flower, blue carrots, and concord blue grapes. It’s unclear why blue foods are so hard to find, but some research suggests it’s because they’re typically appetite suppressants.
  • Yellow – Happiness: Consumers see yellow as the happiest color, and brands incorporate it in a variety of products. Yellow tends to evoke optimism and general good feelings. However, debate persists regarding the artificial version of yellow in food products.
  • Green – Natural/Healthy: With sustainability and organic remaining front of mind for most consumers, green is making its way to becoming one of the more popular colors in the food supply chain (think green juice). Green is now almost synonymous with health and well-being when it comes to food.
  • Orange – Satisfying/Energizing: Orange foods are normally tied to autumnal traditions in the west, including pumpkin products, squash, and candy corn. However, orange is vibrant, with orange and carrot juice linked to vitality year-round.

What about packaging?

As we mentioned, color is one of the first things we notice while shopping. Visual factors influence more than 90% of purchase decisions, and 85% of shoppers say that color is the primary reason for buying a product. With that in mind, understanding how packaging color dictates purchasing behavior is vital to food manufacturers. While the colors above represent how consumers react to them, the packaging colors of those products elicit entirely different feelings. For example, seeing blue eggs on a plate vs. buying eggs in blue packaging can evoke different emotions.

Here’s how a few colors break down in terms of packaging:

  • Red: Red is a bold packaging choice and helps draw attention to your product. It is known to spark an appetite, but it’s also the color people notice first, which is why so much food packaging features red.
  • Blue: Blue packaging helps portray trust and dependability. However, darker blues are more serious and formal, whereas lighter blues help give the perception of softness and creativity.
  • Yellow: Yellow in packaging suggests something is original or innovative or that the product is less expensive or fun. With the optimistic energy of this color, it has a youthful, upbeat vibe that can help attract a younger demographic.
  • Green: In food coloring, consumers associate green packaging with healthy and organic products. With the increase in health-conscious consumers and people more focused on what goes into their bodies, green has grown in popularity in recent years.
  • Purple: Using purple in your packaging implies your product is unique or original; consumers associate purple with spirituality, and remains a common choice for holistic products.
  • Orange: Orange is often used to portray value and affordability, and for food marketers, orange packaging helps provide a more affordable appearance.
  • Black: Black typically represents luxury, appearing more substantial and expensive, which transmits a higher perceived value. As a result, this color is often on higher-end items like premium ice creams and chip packages. And depending on what colors you choose to pair it with, black can convey many things.
  • Brown: Brown works for products that brands want to portray as natural, wholesome, or organic. In addition, earthy brown packaging promotes sustainability. Brand lean toward this when they want to communicate its packaging is made from recycled sources.
  • White: White is simple and straightforward, creating the impression of cleanliness, efficiency, or simplicity. And depending on the additional colors brands pair with white, it can either elevate the packaging or keep it simple.

 Color shapes consumers’ first impressions of products and influences buying behavior. So, when choosing packaging and food coloring, brands must pay close attention to the psychology behind color to attract and engage customers of any age.

But there’s much more to bringing products to market than color selection. New product launches demand more efficiency and speed at every stage of development.

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