Stupid Question ™
June 20, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why are pistachio nuts painted red?
—James R. Skidmore
A: As we’ve discussed before in the cases of cheddar cheese and red soda, there are three basic reasons to color food: to fraudulently cover up spoilage; to cover up minor imperfections that are not harmful but look undesirable; and to make the product recognizable to consumers.
In the case of pistachios (which are technically classified as seeds, not nuts), the latter two reasons seem to have been behind the use of red dye.
Pistachios are native to the eastern Mediterranean coast of the Middle East and have been used in cooking throughout the Arab world for millennia. Through trade, the taste for pistachios spread through Asia and Europe. In countries such as France, where pistachios could be cultivated, they became a part of the cuisine.
Pistachios first became available in the US around 1880, but were used mostly in fancy recipes. Their real heyday began in the 1930s, when nut markets got the idea of selling them in vending machines.
The problem was that pistachios were an imported product and came mostly from the Middle East, where they were harvested by hand and had a long journey to the vending machine. They typically arrived stained and battered-looking—in general, not very appetizing.
An obvious solution was to dye them a uniform color. (Modern studies have shown consumers believe uniformly colored foods to be better, and literally experience them as tasting better.)
Red was chosen because it made pistachios stand out. Studies have since shown that red foods are perceived as being fresher and more flavorful than most other colors.
In the 1970s, California farmers began growing pistachios. With modern harvesting methods and a relatively short trip to market, the pistachios looked fine and didn’t need to be covered up with dye. And in fact, most of the pistachios sold in the US are their natural color (a tan shell with the California variety’s distinctive bright green nut).
However, the power of color is strong. A small amount of pistachios are still dyed red for markets in which consumers have come to expect them to be that color and won’t recognize naturally-colored pistachios—and possibly wouldn’t buy them if they did.
* * * * *
How right I was last week when I said the genealogical terminology for cousins is confusing: I screwed it up myself. Reader Sean Scheiderer said he believed his first cousin’s child was his first cousin, once removed—and that the terminology described in my column supported that. But I later defined a first cousin, once removed as “the child of one of your grandparent’s siblings.”
“So what is he?” Sean complained.
Actually, both relationships are first cousins, once removed. My mistake was in saying my example was definitive. Cousins can be “removed” (separated by a generation) either forward or backward on the family tree. Genealogists typically work backward (that is to say, they’re interested in generations earlier than themselves), so that’s why I fixated on the grandparent’s sibling’s child example.