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Tasting With Our Eyes: Why Bright Blue Chicken Looks So Strange

There's something unsettling — freakish, even — about Lawrie Brown's photos of everyday meals.

In one photo, the California-based photographer has placed a shockingly blue raw chicken atop a bed of rice and peas. In another, pink cereal puffs float in a sea of yellow milk. And Brown slathers three hefty scoops of green ice cream with purple fudge in a third, with blood-red cherries as garnish. Other photos in her "Colored Food Series" feature green corn, blue crackers and green spaghetti.

These dishes are familiar, but their natural colors have been swapped for bizarre tones. Instead of roast chicken food porn, Brown gives us an unappetizing, alien-looking chicken. And the pure white we're so used to seeing in the cereal bowl has been replaced with a sort of yellow goop.

Some of these colors, like the blue on the chicken and the green on the corn, are latex paint. But the pink cereal, the green ice cream and the vibrant block of cheddar cheese were sold in those eye-popping colors.

Brown says the project came about as she started hearing about food additives, and the more she learned the more fascinated — and repulsed — she grew. "It got to the point where I didn't think I could make a good purchase at the grocery store," she says.

Health advocacy groups say there's mounting scientific evidence linking artificial food dyes to behavioral issues in children. The Food and Drug Administration is currently probing that link.

To help people become more aware of food dyes, Brown got out her camera, bought some paint and looked for food that was conspicuously dyed, along with tableware to create a typical American table setting. "As far as the colors, I wanted something kind of whimsical and colorful and bright, and sort of a contradiction to what was going on in the background," Brown tells The Salt.

While the painted hues in Brown's images are intense, they're not that far off from the colors in the products we see every day in the grocery store. Just think of blue M&M's and energy drinks and yellow Skittles.

But making food more "fun" isn't the only reason for the preponderance of artificial dyes in processed food. We actually taste food first with our eyes, says Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist specializing in the perception of food at Oxford University. And that's what food companies hope to appeal to when they coat food in brilliant jewel tones.

"Visual cues kind of have precedence and can set up expectations about what it is we think we're going to taste and what the flavor will be," he says. "And those expectations tend to be a very powerful determinant of what we actually experience."

For example, different shades of red can make us perceive food as 11 percent sweeter than it actually is. Green tends to make us think the food will be sour. And blue can make us turn away in disgust, which may explain our reaction to Brown's blue chicken.

There could be an evolutionary reason behind this, Spence says. Fruit turns from green to red as it ripens, so our ancestors associated red with sweet and green with sour. And blue food isn't as common in nature, unless we're talking about bluish-gray meat, which usually signals spoilage.

In fact, Brown's blue chicken is reminiscent of a well-known experiment from the 1970s, in which steak and fries were served under a special lighting that made the meal look normal. The participants enjoyed it — until researchers revealed under normal lighting that the steak had been dyed blue and the fries green. Just like that, their appetites were gone.

But the response isn't always disgust. Sometimes our brains may enjoy the surprise. Think back to 2000, when food manufacturer Heinz introduced its notorious green and purple, Shrek-inspired ketchup, Spence says. The funky colors may not have been popular with adults, but kids loved it — even if it was only for a short time.

Indeed, Brown says that different people had different reactions to her photos — particularly the one with the green ice cream with the purple toppings. "I had one person say that they just love grape toppings and then I had another person that found it disgusting," she says.

Spence says it's hard to imagine a world without food dyes. We even alter the color of egg yolks by varying the feeds for chicken.

If anything, he says, we might see a shift toward natural food coloring. The purple potato might just get its day in the sun.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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