Everyone Likes Red and Pink Candies Best

Sweets manufacturers are finally catching on and selling packages without the lesser colors.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

There’s an Internet meme floating around—Miley Cyrus posted it to Instagram a few months ago—that implores, “Don’t ever let someone treat you like a yellow Starburst. You are a pink Starburst.”

The message acknowledges and plays on a widely held belief: that pink and red candies are the best and all the other flavors are also-rans. This isn’t to say there aren’t outliers, but more often than not, people prefer their fruity candy in shades of red. It’s reminiscent of the frequency with which people claim seven as their lucky number. Ask a random sampling of people, and even though they’ll have all kinds of different backgrounds and taste, the front-runners will emerge: lucky number seven, top candy choice red.

Lately, several companies have launched new products that capitalize on the red bias. Last year Popsicle came out with Red Classics, a line of its ice pops that nixes grape and orange from the usual lineup and only contains strawberry, cherry, and raspberry, an assortment of reds. Starburst has its FaveReds, a version of the fruit chews that includes strawberry (aka pink), cherry, and in place of orange and lemon, two rosy flavors: fruit punch and watermelon. Mike and Ike candies have a Red Rageous edition. Cherry is the only Life Savers fruit flavor available individually packaged. (If you prefer Life Savers Gummies, you can get the Mix O Reds Sours.) According to Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight in food and drink for Mintel, a market intelligence agency, almost a third of confectionary products launched in the U.S. in the past three years have been red.

Mogelonsky speculated that red was nonthreatening and lacked the acidic quality that can turn people off lemons and other citruses. But it’s not only that. The importance of the color red, sometimes over or in place of specific flavors, is notable. What is fruit punch, when you think about it, but a generic, noncommittal red flavor that doesn’t even bother to associate itself with a specific fruit?

According to Charles Spence, a University of Oxford psychologist who studies how people perceive flavor and consults for major food and beverage companies, color has a bigger influence on flavor than most people are aware. “There are probably a couple of hundred studies now since the first ones in the 1930s showing that if you change the color of a food or drink it will very often change the taste of the person rating it,” Spence said. “You sort of think intuitively, well … the color isn’t part of the taste. And yet this growing body of research over the decades does show it can influence the taste in quite dramatic ways that can’t necessarily be overwritten.”

Regarding red, Spence said that studies have shown that “it seems like red is a particularly effective cue for sweetness, maybe because there’s a cue in nature, which is fruits going from green and sour and unripe through redder and sweeter and riper.” Spence added that food manufacturers can make food taste as much as 10 percent sweeter just by coloring it red.

Marcia Pelchat, a psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center who studies food preferences, disagreed with Spence’s theory. “I don’t think you can make an evolutionary argument that goes back to our primate ancestors. I think it’s shared cultural experience,” Pelchat said. “The more you eat the red lollipops, the more you associate the red lollipops with sugar and calories and the more you want the red ones. … Once a tradition gets established in a cuisine or culture, you don’t really need an explanation for it, it’s just what’s done.” This preference can emerge very early, according to Spence: Research has shown that infants given a sweet food and a sour food in two differently colored cups will quickly come to prefer the color associated with the sweet food.

Confection and dessert companies are certainly aware of the power of red. “For our brand, red is a magical color,” said Nick Soukas, who oversees ice cream products at Unilever, the owner of Popsicle. Soukas said the impulse to create a red-only line of ice pops came not from scientific data but from customer feedback via the company’s phone lines and social media accounts. “Actually for a long time consumers had been saying that they are looking for a pack that has all red in it,” Soukas said. No specific flavor, just red. Red Classics launched last year as a special edition, and Soukas said it had been successful enough to gain a place in the company’s permanent repertoire. “We’ve gotten lots of thank yous and lots of ‘you listened to me.’ ” Soukas told me sales of Red Classics are good, although he declined to share specific sales numbers.

At this point it seems appropriate to ask, if red is so obviously superior to the rest of the flavors, why do companies bother producing the others at all? To answer this, Spence pointed to a concept called color-specific satiety, “which means you kind of get bored if you have too much of the same thing.” People end up eating less if given a single type of food, instead of an assortment of different types of foods. This knowledge is reflected even in all-red packages: Most of the companies that have come out with red-only versions have included multiple shades and flavors within the packages, careful to make sure the variety that keeps people popping candies wouldn’t disappear with the yellows, greens, and oranges.

The rash of red flavors is also part of a larger trend in packaged food: Companies just seem to be trying more things in general. Yes, now you can get red-only boxes of Popsicles, but you can also get what just a few years ago would have been an unthinkable variety of Twizzlers, from Strawberry Lemonade Filled Twists to—and this seems sacrilegious—Rainbow Twists. Companies that used to have only red are branching out; companies that used to specialize in variety are stratifying. Mogelonsky speculated on behalf of candy companies, “They want to interest you in other products. So they change the texture or the flavor or the color or a combination of all three.” Spence agreed that anything novel can grab attention and sales. And in an era where you can custom-order any color of M&M’s online, in colors that used to be strictly unavailable, maybe other candy companies feel they need to flood the market.

As a red partisan myself, I’m generally happy with this trend, regardless of its cause. But even though my access to red flavors has improved, old habits die hard. I used to buy boxes of Popsicles and try to pawn the orange and grape flavors off on roommates or visitors. With Red Classics, I eat the cherry and strawberry, but I find myself eyeing with suspicion, and often trying to get rid of, the darker-colored raspberry ones. At least now I’m only shunning one-third of the box, instead of two-thirds.