The snack with the unsettling color
A history of the flavor blue raspberry
Hello, Snackers. It’s one of the great mysteries of our time: What’s the deal with the artificial flavor blue raspberry?! Raspberries aren’t blue!
If you’re new here, this is the weekly free post for Snack Stack, a newsletter that explores the cultural history of snacks. If you enjoy this, please share it and subscribe. Thanks so much.
Once upon a time, about 160 years ago, food began to turn blue. It sounds like magic realism but it’s really just science plus capitalism, and when you think about it, that combination is at the root of so many physical-world things that feel like magic realism—self-driving cars, mood rings, Disney’s Imagineered environments, the sitcom “Dinosaurs.” There were blue foods before this, of course—the little cobalt flecks in blue cheese, or blueberries, although the latter are often more purplish than properly blue, or blue corn (ditto). But if you were looking for things to eat that were a true, rich blue—your indigos and ceruleans and turquoises and ultramarines—there weren’t many options.
People first started dyeing food blue in the 1860s, according to historian Carolyn Cobbold, who wrote the book A Rainbow Palate: How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food. Cobbold spoke to Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast in 2020 for an episode on blue food, and said that, in the 1860s, “chemists were playing around with coal tar waste and actually discovered that they could create dyes from coal tar.” Decoder Ring host Willa Paskin picks up the story:
Needless to say, eating dyes intended for textiles to say nothing of a number of even more toxic additives would occasionally make people really sick. So in 1906, the American government started to regulate these dyes. By that point, there were more than 900 textile dyes with off label usages in food rather than test all of them. The government decided it would be easier just to approve seven of them. By the 1930s, that list had grown to 15, and it included blue dye number one, also known as Brilliant Blue and Red Dye Number 2, a deep red color typically used with raspberry flavoring.
If you recognize the name “Red Dye Number 2,” it’s probably because it was notorious for being banned as a carcinogen in 1976. TIME later named it one of history’s fifty worst inventions. But, as Paskin notes, Red Dye Number 2 was already considered somewhat controversial before the ban. Around 1958, a company called Gold Medal, which supplied carnivals with cotton candy machines and other items, stopped using the dye but still had raspberry flavoring on hand, awaiting a bright color to mix into the final product. So Gold Medal switched over to Brilliant Blue, using it for snow cones and cotton candy—this was the invention of blue raspberry, an act of improvisation rather than planning or focus groups. It’s also worth noting that, as Decoder Ring discusses at length (go listen to the whole episode!), blueberries just weren’t that popular in the USA at this time—they were still considered an oddity, outsold by figs. Raspberries were a better-known flavor. So: blue raspberry.
By the early 1970s, ICEE had also started using blue raspberry as a signature flavor of the drinks it sold at fairs and carnivals; from there, it spread within that same festive environment. (You can read a different version of basically the same story in this Bon Appetit article from 2016.) For more than a decade, blue raspberry stayed within that limited but wondrous ecosystem of novelty and fun, a wildly-colored treat among spinny rides and 4-H kids showing off their goats and foods-on-sticks and funhouses and knock-down-the-milk-jug games. Around this period, according to Decoder Ring, blue raspberry also became a popular food coloring for red-white-and-blue colored frozen treats—Popsicles and the like—around the Fourth of July.
Here’s blue raspberry cotton candy for sale at a fair in Nebraska in 1976:
But the question remains: How did it spread beyond special occasions and summertime sweets and carnivals and fairs … and into everyday life? Why is it all over the grocery stores now? Why did blue raspberry’s arrival happen slowly, in the 1970s, and then all at once?
* * *
Blue food is unsettling. Academic studies have shown this—and, actually, it’s not just blue food that’s the issue, but food whose color doesn’t match our perception of what it’s supposed to be. Pink milk or a chartreuse pork chop would also do the trick, or even something we think of as bright and colorful but instead appears pallid—an overly pale tomato, for example. Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, explained to NPR’s excellent food blog, The Salt:
Visual cues kind of have precedence and can set up expectations about what it is we think we're going to taste and what the flavor will be. And those expectations tend to be a very powerful determinant of what we actually experience.
Marketers have known this for ages (of course they have), and have long used bright colors specifically to connote a sense of novelty, as with the red (or pink) lemonade sold at circuses in the 1800s, which we discussed in the post on circus peanuts a few months ago. This was the case with blue raspberry, too: it was fun.
On Decoder Ring, Paskin speculates that blue raspberry exploded in the 1990s because it that’s when, after all those years, “blue’s potential as an attention-grabbing novelty finally exceeded concerns that it might be off-putting.” And it’s true that blue food had a huge moment in this moment, during the early years of the Clinton administration and the late years of hair metal. The first ad I could find for a blue raspberry product that wasn’t a Popsicle or a carnival treat was this juice (“juice,” really, LOL) from 1991:
By 1992, the color was “sweeping the world” of food, according to the Boston Globe:
And in 1994, it was still going strong, and not just as a novelty treat for kids. There were also chips, pasta, and much more. By this writer’s count, 21 new blue foods had debuted that year.
But allow me to point out what else is going on in the culture at the time. The late 1980s and early 1990s are when Pop Rocks and Gatorade both hit their stride; it’s a period of massive expansion in chip flavors. Gummi bears and gummi worms both entered the U.S. market in 1981, the latter pitched as a wild and crazy new food (read that post here!), leading the way for other candies (most of them brightly-colored) to follow the same path, including the super sour varieties like Warheads, which arrived stateside in 1994 (here’s that post). There were brightly-colored legwarmers on all the aerobics aficionados Sweatin’ to the Oldies and Rubik’s Cubes in every house and MTV changing music forever and, again, glam metal.
This was not a sedate cultural moment. It was it was loud, it was synthetic, it was colorful, it was out there. And I strongly suspect that this—more than mere “passage of time since blue raspberry was invented in the late 1950s”—explains that zooming line in the chart of this flavor’s popularity. It may be a development of the 1950s, but it’s a food of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Thanks for reading! I have a blast doing these posts but it’s also real work and paid subscriptions are what makes it worth my time. Paid subscribers get three posts every week, all for a mere $5 per month, which is less than you spend on actual snacks. If you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you so much!
If you liked this post, you’ll probably also enjoy Aspen Soda (a short-lived apple soda), Chelsea Soda (an Anheuser-Busch product with a touch of alcohol but no age restrictions), carob, or the story of the two feuding brothers who both claimed to have invented the six-foot hero.