If blue-tinted foods don't make you go 'bleeccchh' you must be a kid

October 21, 1992|By Garret Condon | Garret Condon,Hartford Courant/Los Angeles Times Syndicate

At the mention of blue-colored food, bespectacled Richard Orpheus III, smiles broadly.

"Pretty tasty."

His mother, Judy Orpheus, 46, makes a face of grim horror.

"I think it's disgusting."

There it is, ladies and gentlemen, in the aisles of an East Coast supermarket: the new generation gap. It's not about the war, long hair, the Sex Pistols music group, or any of other contentious topics between young and old. This is about which colors you can put in your mouth.

America's food manufacturers have discovered -- or created -- a demand among young consumers for blue food. In so doing they've broken a long-held tenet of food science: that human beings, unaccustomed to seeing blue in the cornucopia of nature's bounty, just won't eat blue food. Far from the realm of blueberries (which have a kind of purple, Concord-grape look in the flesh anyway) and the one blue food of yore, blue Popsicles, food manufacturers have created blue Kool-Aid, blue Hawaiian Punch, blue Jell-O, blue microwave popcorn, blue fruit snacks and even blue soda.

And why would America's food giants -- Kraft General Foods, General Mills, Procter & Gamble and others -- trample a long-held belief and introduce foods that will surely divide parent from child? Because big, bright colors might make for black ink.

Case in point: Hawaiian Punch.

The venerable red-colored fruit drink has been selling in America since 1934. Two years ago, Procter & Gamble bought the product line from Del Monte, and set out to sell more of the stuff. Carol Boyd, public affairs manager for P&G, says that in research focus groups, kids -- the primary market for Hawaiian Punch -- kept raising the idea of bright colors. One color that was definitely more than OK -- kids called it "cool" -- was blue.

The result was a year of test-marketing an assortment of colors in the Northeast: the original red, yellow, green, orange and -- yes -- blue Hawaiian Punch. What to the untrained adult eye looks like something you'd use to clean your bathroom mirror is actually a fruit beverage that kids are climbing over each other to drink.

"This is a product that is just going gangbusters," says Ms. Boyd of the new colored versions of Hawaiian Punch. They sold so well during the past year that the line was recently introduced nationwide.

Then there is Jell-O gelatin, which has been jiggling in various colors on dinner tables since 1902, but acquired a blue color only this year. Kathy Zeno, senior product manager for Jell-O gelatin at Kraft General Foods in Glenview, Ill., says blue Jell-O is one of the results of greater experimentation and risk-taking among food makers, and "more kids involved in decision-making in the households."

Christie Hoyer, director of sensory evaluation and market research for the National Food Processors Association laboratory Dublin, Calif., sees a lot of the food trends before they hit the shelves. At her lab, where the visual appeal, taste and texture of many proposed food products are evaluated, she has been singing the blues.

"My impression is that the use of blue food has been increasing the last several years," she says. You get into a lot of blue drinks, pops, bubble gum -- these seem to be things that lend themselves to blue food." Ms. Hoyer says she hasn't done much testing of blue foods on adults, but she guesses that food companies have already figured out that adults won't bite. Grown-ups, she suggests, may be more concerned with "natural" foods -- or at least natural-looking food.

So don't look for blue entrees, says Marcia Copeland, who, as director of General Mills' Betty Crocker Food and Publication Center, basically is Betty Crocker. "It works better with fun foods," she says.

Blue foods are no more or less healthful than the processed foods that middle-aged baby boomers grew up with. Although a handful of products may derive their tint from natural sources (blue corn chips and blueberry yogurt, for example), most use either Blue No. 1 or Blue No. 2 or both -- synthetic chemical additives that dye foods. There's a good chance the artificial blue color will be teamed with artificial flavors, too.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington watchdog group, recommends that consumers avoid foods with chemical dyes because some are suspected of being cancer-causing agents. The Chicago-based American Dietetic Association takes no such stand, according to Karen Miller-Kovach, a Cleveland dietitian and spokeswoman for the ADA. "We really don't have a problem with it," she says of food colorings. "Certainly a small percentage of individuals may show an intolerance or sensitivity to any food additive."

For color consultant Leatrice Eiseman of Seabeck, Wash., blue tTC food is the culinary equivalent of spiked, purple hairdos and safety pins through earlobes.

"What you have happening is the shock value," she says. "The younger generation always tries to shock adults."

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