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  • Visualizing Taste: How Business Changed the Look of What You Eat by Ai Hisano
  • Barkha Kagliwal (bio)
Visualizing Taste: How Business Changed the Look of What You Eat
By Ai Hisano. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. Pp. 336.

Bright oranges at the supermarket, yellow butter available throughout the year, and pink cakes at birthday parties: in Visualizing Taste, Ai Hisano examines how the appearance of everyday foods has changed from 1870 to 1970 in the United States.

Hisano argues that the industrialized mass production and sale of food depends on controlling consumers' senses. Food is reduced to its "eye appeal"—in particular, to its color—at the expense of smell, taste, texture, shape, and size (p. 21). Various scientific and technological interventions aided this transformation, including standardizing color through spectrophotometers, quantifying beer through tintometers, and testing through the colorimeter. This "chromatic revolution" ensured the predictability of colors for consumers, higher sales for producers, and safety from adulteration for regulators (p. 20). While visual culture studies focus on print media such as advertising to housewives through colorful leaflets, magazines, and brochures, Hisano demonstrates how color control also altered food as well as consumers' gender and class identities. [End Page 1224]

Natural dyes were common before synthetic alternatives offered an extensive spectrum of artificial colors. This fundamentally changed not only the color of processed foods like Jell-O and meats but also of fresh foods like fruits and vegetables—all at the behest of corporate interests. The author reveals the irony that growers, producers, and retailers redefined these "artificial" colors as "fresh" and "natural." Hisano supports these claims with evidence from trade journals, media articles, marketing brochures, and home economist statements, among other sources.

The book contributes a visual perspective to literature on agriculture, food processing, and retail in the history of technology. Several studies have provided an approach to understanding the entire chain of mass producing food: Deborah Fitzgerald has analyzed the changes that led to factory farms; Shane Hamilton studied how food processing changed labor relations in meat packing; and Franck Cochoy examined the shift from local groceries to the self-service layouts of retail stores. Hisano's contribution to this literature is to show that many aspects of these processes have been subject to producers' reduction of food to its visual dimension. This change pervaded every aspect of the industrialized food system: controlling consumer perceptions through marketing; changing the very object of purchase, for instance, by eliminating green oranges; adding artificial dyes not only to processed foods but also to canned, and eventually, even to fresh produce; making the branding on packaging bright, which did not conform to the natural color of foods; and finally, controlling the retail environment through lighting, layout, refrigeration, and clear packaging. Competition between producers and the relationship between the state and corporate interests remade the very boundaries of processed and fresh produce, natural and artificial food color, and harmful versus harmless dyes.

The book highlights conflicting stakeholder perspectives: those of growers, dye producers, food processors, retailers, scientists, USDA and FDA regulators, consumer organizations, housewives, and home economists. The book achieves a comprehensive analysis in several case studies, showing, for example, how the yellow color of bananas was normalized over their purple color and butter was colored yellow while margarine declared to be white.

Another strength of Hisano's approach is comparing the (often conflicting) decisions regarding public health and safety concerns of European and American regulators. By pointing to differing or similar approaches, the book's material is situated in a larger realm of patenting regimes, international trade, and even geopolitical battles over food safety. The book raises important questions about the power of consumer organizations in pushing back against harmful food dyes: for instance, the regulatory controversy about red dyes used to color meat following the counter-culture movements in the 1960s. While there is much evidence of consumer push-back to the addition of artificial color to foods, Hisano could have done more to include consumer perspectives on food quality encompassing taste, smell, shape, size, and nutritive value in addition to color. [End Page 1225]

Visualizing Taste is especially of interest to scholars of the history of technology and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 1224-1226
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-07
Open Access
No
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