The Surprising Relationship Between Spices and Paint Color

By Amanda Lecky

If you’ve ever been inspired by the rich red of cayenne or the intense gold of curry while cooking, you’ve reacted to the natural pigments found in spices. In fact, it turns out that when it comes to color, spices and paint share an ancient history.

The chemical compounds that give spices their vibrant colors tend to fall into several categories, including chlorophylls, the greenish pigments that all plants contain; carotenoids, the red, orange or yellow pigments that give paprika, saffron and turmeric their brilliant hues; and flavonoids, the yellow pigment found in cassia cinnamon, for example.

Plants use these different natural pigments to help capture the energy of sunlight for photosynthesis and to attract insects and animals to aid pollination and seed dispersal. And for centuries, humans have also adopted natural pigments — many of them derived from the same spices they used for their native cuisine — to add vibrant organic color to their surroundings. The paint used in 50,000-year-old Persian cave art contained saffron, just as classic Persian “Jeweled Rice” does. And the same turmeric cooked into a Tibetan curry also gave Buddhist monks’ robes their golden hue.

Today’s synthetic pigments have made it easier to surround ourselves with these earthy hues — and tap into our instinctual appetites for color.

“Spice tones create in us a very visceral connection to color. They’re rooted and anchored, they come from the soil — which is very comforting,” says Sue Wadden, Director of Color Marketing for Sherwin-Williams. “Of course, if they’re bright — like a cayenne-pepper red — these colors can be stimulating, so you have to decide what kind of effect you want when you’re deciding where to use them.”