With the annual home school science fair just around the corner, I’ve been finding myself reminiscing over last year, when Kat participated in her very first science fair! We regularly take science classes at the Arizona Science Center and each year they hold a non-competitive home school science fair. We had recently been watching the TED talk given by the 2011 Google Science fair winners and Kat, inspired by the story of grand prize winner Shree Bose, immediately knew what her question would be: Does the color of foods affect whether or not we like them? Kat’s hypothesis was that no, the color of foods would not affect whether people would like them. After all, it’s all the same food!
In order to find out for sure, we had to come up with a test! She was really excited about the idea of eating different colored foods. As we brainstormed, the excitement grew as we talked about the various ways we could test her question on different people. Her excitement reached epic proportions when she realized that she could make me eat all sorts of oddly colored things.
The first thing we needed to do was look at the colors of food we already eat. We looked in the refrigerator, cabinets, counter tops and fruit bowls and took a survey of the colors we found. Surprisingly, we found brown to be the most common color, with green, yellow, and white not far behind. Apparently, we really like our breads, crackers, lunch meats and pastas! The greens of course, were vegetables, white included eggs, milk, and some meats, while yellow included bananas, squash, and some pastas. Red (meats) were fewer, with some colors hardly represented at all!
Once we took a survey of the colors of food in our kitchen, we talked about expectations of color. When we eat an apple for instance, we expect the inside to be white. Occasionally it will have a green tint, but if it were to be black, we would avoid it entirely. Likewise, if we were to take raw ground beef out of the refrigerator, and see that it had turned green, we would decide it best to throw it away. We talked about how early humans would have used color (along with memory, smell, and taste) to differentiate between edible and poisonous foods. Colors can also be used in the animal kingdom to indicate a poisonous or venomous animal. The relation to color and food was quite striking, but could we actually be deterred from something we know is delicious based only on the color?
The only way to test this was to change everything we expect about food and how it looks! We began with a few practice tests at home. Since this was her science fair, Kat got to be the scientist conducting the experiment while I became the guinea pig. She had a great time concocting different sides of mac and cheese and yogurt for me, colored in all sorts of wacky ways! The worst offender by far was the lunch plate I was served, consisting of a discolored ham sandwich, with a side of broccoli and a blue apple.
Thankfully, I was not alone in my role of Kat’s guinea pig as she began to recruit other members of the family to participate in her tests. I bore the brunt of technicolor sandwiches while they were served a rainbow of mac and cheese.
As Kat became more practiced, it was time to move on to the final testing stage. We decided on a neutral food that we knew all of our test subjects would like (for our family, this was a mix of tropical fruit). Each bowl would contain the exact same pieces of fruit so as to ensure the same taste throughout the experiment. Next, we needed a way to keep track of and organize our data. We made two charts, each containing the names of the participants, followed the the numbers that corresponded to our bowls of colored fruit. During the test, we would ask our participants to rate each bowl on a scale of most likely or least likely to eat again. We would document their responses, graph them, and analyze them at the end of our experiment.
We set out 4 cups of fruit on the dinner table. The cups were marked with a 1, 2, 3, or 4. Cup 1 was red, 2 = green, 3 = control, and 4 = blue. Prior to testing, we would mix the order of the cups so that the colors could not be predicted. Each participant would sit at the table and sample the fruit from each cup. Each participant would eat from a new batch of colored fruit and we would provide enough silverware for everyone to use a new utensil.
Each participant was blindfolded in another room. They were then guided to the testing area, usually by giggling kids. One at a time, the participant would take his or her seat and begin testing. Kat or I would hand feed a bite from each cup to the participant. When they had finished sampling from each cup, they were asked to consider which cup they liked the best. Once they chose, the blindfold was lifted to reveal their answer!
When the participants were asked to choose a blind favorite, the answers were fairly split divided by age. The children chose red or blue, while almost every adult chose the control. Apparently, the food coloring had enough of a taste that the control was a refreshing contrast. Further experiments will need to account for this and adjust the amount of food coloring accordingly.
When our subjects were asked to choose which cups they would most likely eat from again, the results were almost uniform in their similarity! With few exceptions, our participants said they would most likely choose the red fruit or the control. They all expressed varying degrees of disgust at the idea of eating from the blue or green fruit cups.
We had our data, now it was time to graph it and figure out what it meant. When we were able to look at it in graph form, our answer became clear. The color of food DOES affect whether people will like it!
Once we had concluded our science experiment, it was time to prepare the presentation! We went to our local teaching supply store to pick up our display panels and set to work planning a layout. Because we were working with colored foods, we thought it would be fun to print out a bunch of coloring pages for fruits and vegetables and give them all sorts of odd colors. We matted her graphs to the display panels and picked out a layout for her title. It wasn’t long before we had our “perfect” display!
Then she was off to the Arizona Science Center for the home school science fair! She got to explain her whole process, from hypothesis to analysis to hundreds of people! Her booth was a big hit due to the crazy colors of food that were pictured. People were very amused by the idea of eating a green ham sandwich (there were also plenty of green eggs and ham jokes)!
She also got to meander about the lobby and examine other kids’ projects. There were projects ranging from mummified hot dogs to gray water collection devices. Kids had Rubik’s Cubes, butterfly life cycles, and even air powered rockets!
The science fair was a wonderful experience that Kat and I will look back on with fond recollection for years to come. It has also given us something to look forward to every year! It is non-competitive and open to all Arizona home schoolers. This gives kids a great opportunity to practice speaking to the public about their projects and get inspired by the ideas around them!
It also gave us plenty of new and interesting experiences. Kat made her first bar graph to record our data and allow us to analyze it. We took a good look at the scientific method and applied it to our project. Our friends and family joined us in the excitement of asking crazy questions and finding answers. One of the most useful things about the project was learning about what people thought about colors and food, and differentiating between hard science and “soft science” (research that doesn’t provide hard evidence). Parsing through information and determining what is valid is an invaluable skill and this gave us an ample opportunity to look at sources of varying validity.
The best part of all though, was watching as Kat made me and our friends and family eat food of all sorts of colors. The enjoyment that she got out of our feigned wariness was wonderful to see. I will always remember how silly she and my niece were as they were guiding our blindfolded family members to the dinner table of culinary doom.