Do Red Pistachios Taste Different From Undyed Ones?

Pistachios were once the "Cheetos" of the nut world. Dyed a fanciful hue that doesn't exist in nature, they left a distinct colorful residue on one's fingers and lips when consumed. Like Cheetos, red pistachios still exist. Unlike Cheetos, however, red pistachios have little to no presence on U.S. snack shelves, and they haven't since the 1980s, according to Richard Matoian, Executive Director of the American Pistachio Growers (via HuffPost Taste).

Prior to the 1980s, virtually all U.S. pistachio demand was met by Iranian growers, according to the U.C. Davis Agricultural Issues Center, and it was commonplace for them to dye their pistachios a vivid cherry-red, as shown in the image above. The purpose of dyeing the nuts was to obscure pinkish mottling that would appear on the shells of pistachios that had remained in prolonged contact with their hulls, which transform from green to rose-colored as the nuts ripen, per The Washington Post. The way to avoid that staining is by removing the hull within 24 hours after harvest. But that was difficult, if not impossible, until the burgeoning U.S. pistachio industry, which first began producing pistachios commercially in 1976, came up with equipment that helped decrease the time it took to process pistachios. 

From that point, red pistachios gradually fell out of favor (per The Washington Post), except as an occasional novelty. But that begs the question: Is it possible we're doing ourselves a disservice? Do red pistachios taste different — and possibly better — than undyed pistachios? 

Red pistachios have one thing that undyed pistachios do not

If you've never tasted red pistachios, you're missing out on a lot — of handwashing, face-scrubbing, and picking bits of reddish nut skin out of your teeth. You see, the one thing that red pistachios have that non-dyed pistachios do not is red dye — and most likely Red Dye #40, which is FDA-approved for human consumption and widely used in the United States, although its use stirs controversy among some health experts, per Healthline. But if you're wondering if the dye in red pistachios adds anything in the way of flavor, the answer would be no. According to this The New York Times article written in 1987, the red dye used to color pistachios is "strictly for eye appeal; the color has nothing to do with taste." 

The only evidence that anyone may have ever felt any differently comes from The Washington Post, which noted in 1984 that in a side-by-side taste test, the California Pistachio Commission found that "hard-core pistachio eaters preferred the taste of the red-dyed nuts." However, The Washington Post hypothesized that this may have reflected existing bias in favor of what had come before — "brainwashing," as the outlet said.

What does seem clear is that if you love the taste of undyed pistachio nuts, then you'll probably love the taste of red pistachio nuts just as much — if not more, although there is the inevitable red staining to contend with. Here's why all pistachios are so expensive.