Lab Cat

15 Aug 2006


Filed under: Chemistry, Food, Knitting, Research, Science, Yarn — Cat @ 5:19 pm

Trying to decide what science topic to write on next. I do have lots more to say about water but for now I am sated on that subject. Probably just for this week.

What interests me most, both professionally and personally is colour (or color to my American readers).

Professionally – food color is very important.

Can you imagine eating green oranges? Can any one remember the fuss made when blue M&Ms first appeared?

Microwave ovens never replaced traditional gas or electric ovens because when food was baked it didn’t turn brown. Cakes and breads produced in a microwave oven have the expected texture but they never have the right color.

Professional food sensory experts say that food is first sold by its appearance. Another common quote is “the first bite is with the eyes”.

Personally, I use color a lot when I knit. For example I do lots of modular knitting which requires many colors. For example the modular cloak I knitted is very colorful:


More monotone was my New Orleans poncho:


Honestly, when I am choosing colors to knit with, I don’t know exactly what I do. When it is right, I get a buzz-high and when it is wrong (clashing colors) I get a mild headache. I belong to the Kaffe Fassett knitting color school. He says if you are not certain about the colors add another twenty.

People less confident about color can use a color wheel. But the best way to see if colors work is to put them together and knit with them. I have lots of samples and swatches where I tried different color combinations.

So how do we see color?

Color is electromagnetic radiation in the visible wavelength which spans from 350 – 750 nm. For example red is observed in the wavelength 620-740 nm and blue is 440-485 nm.

We perceive color through the cone cells in the eye’s retina:
Eye Cones

As we have three types of cones cells, humans are said to have trichromatic color vision. This allows our eyes to respond to three colors or wavelengths: Yellow-green (maximum wavelength – 564 nm); blue-green (543 nm) and blue-violet (420 nm). Thus, the brain responds to how much each cone receptor is stimulated. For example “red” is perceived when the yellow-green receptor is stimulated significantly more than the blue-green receptor.

You can have fun with color and food as a lot of our response to food color is to do with our perception of what color means to us. I grew up eating Smarties (Nestle’s* version of M&Ms) and there used to be an urban myth around the orange ones has chocolate orange in them. Go on try it with orange M&Ms – it is amazing how easy it to fool people.

*When I ate them, Smarties were produced by Rowntrees. As I was living in York when Nestles took over Rowntrees, I can remember the fuss. (How English that sounds – “the fuss” – but I’m too tired to think of a better word.) We didn’t want our “English” company sold to a European one, a Swiss one at that. I still think of the factory as Rowntrees.



  1. Your thoughts on color are very interesting. I’m a professional painter (watercolors and oils) as well as a knitter, so color is key for me as well. I enjoyed your description of what happens with you when you hit on the right colors and the headache you get when things are off.

    Nice job.


    Comment by firefly8868 — 15 Aug 2006 @ 5:24 pm

  2. As a child I used to get mildly teased, by family, as I would wear such bad colors. Then one day, in my late teens, some one commented on the fact that all my clothes matched. The first time this happened I was hillwalking in Wales and it was far from deliberate. Luckily comments like this kept happening. More recently, I would go to IKEA and see a rug and buy it and it was a perfect fit to the colors in my living room. Now color is my thing.

    Comment by Cat — 15 Aug 2006 @ 5:45 pm

  3. […] Cognitive Daily on the language of color and on how eye structure influences color categories. And a related post on eye evolution by Pharyngula. I intend to write more on colour – a continuation of an earlier post. […]

    Pingback by Food Fables Sept 15 « Lab Cat — 15 Sep 2006 @ 8:46 am

  4. […] I’ve previously posted on the importance of colour in my life and mentioned that it was important for making food choices. How many people remember the fuss when blue M&Ms first came out? […]

    Pingback by Measuring Colour (color) « Lab Cat — 23 Sep 2006 @ 11:15 pm

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