Eye Appeal Is Buy Appeal: Business Creates the Color of Foods

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Wells & Richardson Co. Advertisement, Chicago Dairy Produce (August 1916).

Could you briefly describe your project? Why does the changing color of food over time matter?

My current book project, “Eye Appeal Is Buy Appeal”: Business Creates the Color of Foods, examines the food industry’s persistent attention to color. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, food producers, retailers, and intermediate suppliers devoted enormous resources to determine and create the “natural” color of foods, which many consumers would recognize and in time take for granted. Color was generally easier to control, reproduce, and commoditize than other sensory factors. The smell of foods, for example, was difficult to advertise in print media or television. In contrast, color served as a powerful communication tool for food producers. This initiative to manipulate food color involved large sectors of the U.S. and global economy, creating new business partners and networks among different industries. The management of food color also transformed merchandising systems and the ways products were presented to consumers. My book explores these complex—and colorful—processes, implemented by dye makers, food processors, farmers, grocers, advertising agents, and government agencies and how the research and control of color became a central and permanent part of food production, marketing, and consumption.

The manipulation of food color has been a common practice across cultures for millennia, at least since ancient Egyptians used saffron to color foods. At the turn of the twentieth century, the invention of synthetic dyes and innovations in packaging and retailing technology transformed the function of color for food businesses. Color-controlling technologies, including synthetic dyes, ethylene gas, and transparent packaging, afforded manufacturers and retailers new ways of coloring foods economically, consistently, and conveniently, allowing for a new level of control and standardization. As the labor and technology involved in controlling color changed, food companies utilized color as a marker of consistent quality and brand identity that would appeal to consumers’ eyes in the market transaction. Firms and institutions, ranging from citrus cooperatives and dairy trade associations to dye manufacturers, food processors, and companies like DuPont and General Electric, constructed and propagated an idea that visuality was one of the most important factors in selling foods.

The industrialization of food manufacturing and mechanization of agricultural production transformed what naturalness meant. Food producers’ desire to create sustained profits and streamline production and changing consumer expectations about food color created the “natural” color of foods as a hybrid of nature and technology, constructing naturalness as a complex characteristic of foods.

Aunt Jemima Cake Mix Advertisement, 1952. Author’s collection.

What led you to this project?

I had always been interested in the political, economic, social, and cultural significance of food in human history. I became interested particularly in color when I conducted research on the history of American food marketing, specifically Betty Crocker, for my master’s thesis at the University of Tokyo in Japan. I found that in the 1950s American food companies touted colorful dishes, such as Jell-O molds and thickly frosted cakes, as a symbol of women’s femininity, love for their families, and creativity to market cake mixes and pre-cooked ingredients. I was struck not only by the juxtaposition of “creativity” and the use of processed foods in marketing rhetoric but also by the association between colorfulness and idealized femininity. This led me to wonder how and why the color of foods became connected to gendered narratives. After I moved to the United States for my Ph.D., I encountered different ways in which people decorated and presented foods. I decided to pursue questions about cultural meanings attached to the color of foods.

What sources did you use?

This project is based primarily on archival research. To examine the business-to-business marketing and contemporary issues that concerned the food and dye industries, I use trade journals from various industries, including chemical, food processing, meat packing, dairy, grocery, citrus, and advertising.

I draw on published and unpublished records of federal agencies to analyze the role of the federal government, specifically the USDA, and its relations with the food and dye industries. The records of the USDA and the FDA at the National Archives (College Park, MD) provide insights into food color research, administrative policies about food adulteration and color additives, and individual scientists’ and officials’ views on food coloring. I also use court cases not only to explore government policies on food coloring but also to explore how government officials, food producers, and dye makers helped construct ideas about food and color.

Cookbooks and recipe leaflets distributed by food companies are crucial sources to analyze how the teaching of cooking in general and of coloring foods in particular served as a part of corporate marketing strategies and how consumers gained knowledge about food color. By analyzing advertisements, newspapers, and women’s magazines, including the Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Boston Cooking School Magazine, I explore how food companies, home economists, and cookbook writers created a discourse about food coloring, femininity, and artificiality.

H. Kohnstamm & Co., Food Dye Advertisement, Confectioners Journal (January 1906).

What advice might you offer to someone beginning a dissertation?

Think big and be ambitious. It is true that you need to be realistic about the extent and amount of research and writing you can do within a limited time frame. And over the course of your research, you might need to narrow down your themes, or cut down chapters or sections. But when you start a project with a big historical question, it is more likely that you can craft an original, creative, and interesting work.

Another piece of advice would be to talk to as many people as possible throughout your dissertation process, from drafting a prospectus to writing up the final draft. I was extremely fortunate to have a very supportive and encouraging adviser, mentors, and friends to whom I often talked about my ideas and concerns. Not only does advice from other people provide you with different perspectives, but expressing your thoughts also clarifies your ideas and refreshes your mind. And you are reminded that you are not lonely!

What might someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

My project would make one think what color means as well as what naturalness means. The color of food is closely related to one’s everyday life and health. You may remember the incident of Red Dye No. 2 in the early 1970s. Medical professionals, journalists, and consumer activists claimed that the red dye was injurious to health. The FDA eventually prohibited the use of the dye in food products, and food manufacturers were required to replace the dye with harmless ingredients. Over the last decade, an increasing number of food manufacturers have been turning to natural colors (dyes derived from plants and organic chemicals) while discarding chemically synthesized artificial dyes. In 2015 alone, companies including Hershey, Nestlé USA, Kraft, and General Mills announced they were replacing synthetic with natural colors. In February 2015, for instance, Nestlé USA promised to remove artificial colors from all of its chocolate candy products by the end of 2015. Kraft declared that beginning in 2016, the firm would replace synthetic colors, added to its classic Macaroni & Cheese, with natural ones, including paprika and turmeric. As these controversies over food colors suggest, the expansion of food coloring practice had critical consequences on public health, government policies, and corporate practice. My project provides the origins and implications of contemporary issues over the color of foods by situating them in a larger historical context.

Ai Hisano is the Harvard-Newcomen Postdoctoral Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School. She received a Ph.D. in History in May 2016 from the University of Delaware, where her dissertation, “‘Eye Appeal Is Buy Appeal’: Business Creates the Color of Foods, 1870-1970,” was awarded the best humanities dissertation prize. Hisano’s research interests include business history, the history of capitalism, the history of technology, and environmental history. Her article developed from the dissertation will be published in the Business History Review.

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