Research Explores How Taste, Color of Food Influence Consumers

Claire Sylvester stands in front of a mural that reads "Food Marketing"

In 2015, General Mills replaced the artificial coloring in Trix cereal with all-natural alternatives like turmeric and radishes. The change made the cereal healthier, but without the artificial dyes, Trix lost its classic bright hues. Despite General Mills’ efforts to improve their product for health-focused consumers, Trix lovers everywhere were unhappy.

Claire Sylvester, a food marketing major, is studying these types of consumer reactions through the Summer Scholars program.

Sylvester became interested in the topic during a nutrition course. During class, students discussed how some foods were recalled because consumers were unhappy with the color, while other product changes went undetected if the color remains the same. “I was interested in seeing what the consumer notices,” she says.

With the help of her mentor, Assistant Professor Ernest Baskin, Ph.D., Sylvester is designing experiments, collecting secondary data and writing case studies to better understand how consumers associate color with flavor.

“The Summer Scholars program gives students a chance to dig deep into a specific topic they’re interested in,” Baskin says.

While some of the study subjects are SJU students and faculty, Sylvester has also gotten creative about ensuring she’s getting a good variety of feedback. “I started asking people at the airport during a layover if they’d fill out the survey,” she says.

One of the experiments includes one of two images of a food item. In one, the item is more naturally colored while the other has an unexpected tint. The participant is then asked a series of questions, including how healthy they perceive the item to be, what they believe the calorie count of the item is, and whether or not they’d purchase that item. Sylvester is comparing responses based on the image the consumer saw.

Both Sylvester and Baskin are hoping to create a case study that brings real-world examples into the classroom. “Our end goal is to create something to help students better understand consumer perceptions,” Baskin says.

But Sylvester also hopes her summer research will help her find a career path she wants to stay on. “I’ve grown up watching my mom do research for her job and wanted to get involved in Summer Scholars,” Sylvester says. “Needing to stay in contact with another individual and work together to stay focused and on topic has been really helpful. The Summer Scholars program has especially helped with my writing.”