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Why Is McDonald’s Yellow? The Role Of Environment On Eating Behavior

Photo of a Hamburger and fries

I’m grateful to the Happy Hospitalist for pointing out that color matters when it comes to food consumption. As it turns out, blue light can be an appetite suppressant. And I actually know about this first hand.

I helped to design a research study in connection with Architectural Digest and the Parsons School of Design several years ago. I was a volunteer instructor for a hospital design course in NYC, and wanted to show the students that lighting could influence eating patterns. As it happened, there was a big gala event at a local convention center, and so I worked with my friend Shashi Caan to set up three identical rooms bathed in three different colored lights (yellow, blue, and red).

We had all the gala attendees dress up in white bunny suits (you know, the kind you let patients wear in the OR) and shuttled them through the 3 rooms at regular intervals. The rooms could each hold about 40 guests and copious identical hors d’oeurves were offered.

Guess what we found? The most food was consumed in the yellow room, followed by red, and then a distant third was blue. About 33% fewer snacks were consumed in the blue room during the event (and yes we controlled the number of people in each room so they’d be equal). I found this quite fascinating, but unfortunately never published the results. You see, I didn’t receive IRB approval for any of it.

But the experiment did leave an indelible impression on my mind. As I thought about it, I realized that most fast food restaurants have yellowish interiors. From the golden arches to the lighting – companies like McDonald’s probably recognized (long before I did) that color influences purchasing and eating behavior.

Yep, I’m late to this party – and I’m not painting my kitchen yellow.

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4 Responses to “Why Is McDonald’s Yellow? The Role Of Environment On Eating Behavior”

  1. Vijay says:

    Does that mean it will help me eat less and lose weight if I paint my kitchen & dining room blue? Or should I ask my wife to add Indigo food dye to all the food that she cooks? 😉

  2. drval says:

    Actually, yes. I’d be willing to bet that putting a blue light in your fridge would make the food appear much more unappetizing to you. Can’t hurt… might help! 🙂

  3. Strong One says:

    This is likened to ‘sensation transference’ which is used and abused in the retail market.
    How ironic.

  4. Art says:

    While this effect has implications for how much food you consume, and so weight control, McDonald’s and Burger King had slightly different goals.

    Their interest was to increase the amount of food ordered, not necessarily consumed, and to foster a slight sense of unease that motivated people to leave, so fuller wallets could enter, shortly after ordering. Which determines the ratio of yellow to red, how comfortable the seats are, lighting, and the music selection.

    These companies would prefer it if you didn’t actually enter. Drive through orders are more efficient because there is no dining room or bathroom use. Another bonus is that take-outs don’t deposit their trash there. A substantial labor and cost savings. This countered by the practical limit on the number of lanes and the slightly slower pace. Counter service can have more ‘lanes’, extracts money a bit faster, and so handles surges better.

    In a world run by these companies people would do away with the food side entirely and simply open the door to toss in money before leaving empty handed. I’m pretty sure these corporations have someone working toward that.

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