Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tasting Different

My grandmother and I enjoyed a special relationship. We lived together for about nine years following a series of unfortunate events in our family. She was a second mother, a friend and a truly interesting person.

We often ate dinner together, frequently in front of the television, exchanging stories about our day and snacking. She was a chocolate fan. Fannie Mae candy was a favorite, but M&Ms ran a close second.

One evening Grandma grabbed a handful of the colorful round objects and began popping them in her mouth.

“Mmmm, yellow!” she commented with her eyes closed.

I’m not sure what got my attention. Many people have favorite M&M colors. I like the red ones. Lots of people do, as evidenced by the outcry when the Mars Co. discontinued producing red M&Ms during the red dye #2 scare in 1976. But the way she spoke about the yellow color left me with the impression that she was talking about the color as if it was a favorite flavor, not just an appealing color.

“They’re all the same you know,” I laughed.

“No they’re not, they taste different.”

“It’s just an unflavored colored coating. I think.” Now I wasn’t so sure.

In the days before the internet, the source of answers to everything, you had to rely on your senses, your history, and sometimes a very slow process of discovery to be sure of anything.
I was studying Medical Technology at the time. Ever the scientist, I decided to conduct a blind taste test. It’s an amusing image: a college student securely blindfolding an 80 year old woman, carefully administering random M&Ms from an opaque container in a living room laboratory.

Yes, the blindfold was effective. No, she couldn’t see the candy before I handed it to her.
Given a green candy, she conscientiously rolled it around her mouth, made lip-smacking noises and confidently declared, “Green.”

A red one followed. Same result. Then Yellow. Both properly identified. Back to green to throw her off. “Green.” I believe she even said, “Lime.” Based on what has been subsequently discovered about this ability, she may have been assigning a known flavor to a relevant color.

My grandmother could taste colors!

I immediately wrote a letter to the Mars company describing my findings and asking if the candy coating was indeed flavored.

Weeks later (imagine that, internet generation) I received a formal written response that said something like this:

Although there are chemical variations in the formulation of the coatings applied to our product, those differences are intended to produce color variation, not flavoring.

Much has been learned in the field of neuroscience in the intervening years. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. In other words, a color might produce a taste in a “Synesthete.” It has been estimated the two to four percent of the world’s population might be able to hear colors, taste sounds, etc.

So Grandma may have been a synesthete. It was a memorable and amazing revelation, and a story that I often tell. Sadly, it appears that the gene for this did not get passed along to her grandson.

So you might try this test the next time you rip open a bag. Plain or peanut. I love them both. But I have to go now. I haven’t had breakfast, and there’s a delicious song on the radio.


  1. So, when you insist on eating an entire bag of M&Ms, you're really just conducting a science experiment..? I like that excuse. I don't think mom will fall for it though... haha

  2. I'm gathering data for a graph. According to Mars Co. this is the current distribution. I just want to ensure accuracy.

    MILK CHOCOLATE: 24% cyan blue, 20% orange, 16% green, 14% bright yellow, 13% red, 13% brown.

    PEANUT: 23% cyan blue, 23% orange, 15% green, 15% bright yellow, 12% red, 12% brown.

  3. Loved your story Vic. I wish any one of my grandparents had had magical qualities.