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Shapes, Dyes and Lies: Why We Want Our Food to Look Fake

By HERWriter Guide
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Diet & Nutrition related image Photo: Getty Images

As a vegetarian, I’ve been asked if I think it’s weird that certain veggie foods like burgers, sausages, and "chicken" nuggets are made to look like meat. Since we refuse meat, why eat vegetarian fare that’s made to look just like it? My reply is that no, these veggie meals don’t look like meat. They look like food – the kind that’s almost universally prepared and shaped for human consumption. Meat certainly doesn’t come in a neat looking patty, and chicken cordon bleu doesn’t magically transform itself into a cave-shaped, breaded food that only needs 25 minutes in the oven to taste and look delicious. What we do is make our food look recognizable as…food--an attractive shape, color and smell. Otherwise we’d just lump it all together, right off the bone, and food preparers and chefs would be out of a job!

We seem to be okay with essentially being lied to about our food. We change its shape and color and smell. We mold food to look a certain way, we add lots of herbs and spices to make it smell good--otherwise noone would ever eat a hot dog based on its ingredients, believe me!--and we add color to appease the eye and for it to look good on a plate. A lot of treated foods we eat are gray, beige and muddy brown in their plain state. We dye them to make them look good enough to eat. If we didn’t, the bakeries we love would have a hard time selling half their wares.

A study conducted at Cornell University showed that the majority of people who were given snack foods and treats without food coloring thought they were boring and bland. They were ranked as not tasting very good and being less enjoyable to eat, even though only the color was removed and the taste remained the same. Many food makers feel the same way. Color is intrinsic to the human reaction to food and a psychological experience that’s hard to explain. As humans, we like our foods to be brightly colored.

But The Center for Science in the Public Interest disagrees and has asked the government to remove all artificial colors from foods, due to certain adverse reactions to food dyes. Marion Nestle, who is a teacher of food studies and public health at New York University agreed, stating “...these dyes have no purpose whatsoever other than to sell junk food.”

Many candy makers and bakers maintain that artificial colors are inherent to the tasting experience and those with aversions to the color should simply not eat them, as opposed to stopping the majority who show no adverse effects at all. The thinking behind this is that candy and other treats aren’t meant to be eaten every day, so a little artificial coloring won’t hurt. And natural food colorings only last a few days so wouldn't be suitable for many food makers.

However, many companies who sell food have opted to ban artificial colors from their shelves including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and they haven’t seen a drop in sales.

Tell Us:
What do you think? Should artificial colorants be banned? Would you like to see all foods without artificial food dyes? Would it change your perception of the foods you eat?

Add a Comment1 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

She's right. Many people wouldn't eat candy ( or something like that)if it wasn't brightly colored. That's part of the reason I tried it when I was a kid.

April 8, 2011 - 4:36pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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