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May / June 2005 Cover

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My Life as a Taste Tester

Illustration by Eric Zelz

My Life as a Taste Tester
Nick Houtman looks at the sweet, sour, bitter, salty side of food science product development


The science of food
UMaine is the only institution in New England and the Maritimes - and one of only 15 nationwide - that offers a formal sensory evaluation program.

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At my mother's dinner table, these were the rules: sit up straight, put your napkin on your lap, say "please" and don't talk with your mouth full. You got a second helping only after you cleaned your plate. And if you wanted dessert, it had to be really clean, not a pea or potato in sight.

Doing my duty wasn't a problem when favorites were on the menu: cheese soufflÈ, fruit salad, corned beef hash with ketchup or (I love to watch my children's faces) beef tongue. On the "yuck" list were pea soup, mushrooms, olives and salmon. Imagine not liking pea soup.

As an adult, I've become less picky, more adventurous. After all, science writers like me should be fearless. I once had the chance to try koumiss, fermented mare's milk from central Asia. I am told that it's a specialty best sampled on hot afternoons at sidewalk cafes.

Perhaps we didn't give it a fair chance. We held our koumiss tasting party on a cold fall evening in our Maine kitchen. After I twisted a few arms, everyone eventually had a sip. At first, koumiss seems mild and slightly acidic with a smoky flavor. A few seconds later, it intensifies and fills your senses with a pungency that lands a blow to the solar plexus. No one asked for seconds.

Next to that experience, being a regular taste tester in the University of Maine's Consumer Testing Center for the past 15 years has been a piece of cake. "Going to have lobster for lunch today," I have boasted at the breakfast table. I prefer my lobster with butter; what I sampled and evaluated was different — lobster that had been flash frozen and then steamed. And there was no melted butter in sight (although most of the center's lobster tests do include butter). That's the reality when you're one of a dedicated cadre of tasters who participate in UMaine food scientists' product development process. We willingly compromise our food preferences to provide scientists with experimental data.

The lobster test was a good example of how product development works. The goal was to find out if the frozen product was as good as fresh. Turned out that it was close enough. Test results have helped to expand marketing opportunities for Maine's most famous product. Frozen lobsters from Maine are now served at international banquets and on cruise ships at locations halfway around the world.

Through the years, the foods I've taste tested have run the gamut from desserts to entrees: brownies and hamburgers made with blueberry puree, apples after several months of winter storage, new varieties of boiled potatoes, trout raised on experimental soybean meal, crab-flavored snack chips, chicken baked in various sauces and berry-flavored frozen soy dessert bars.

Other tasters have tried salmon sausage, which is today made commercially by a company in Waldoboro, Maine. A taste tester friend says she once tried milk from cows fed an alternative dairy feed — plants from the brassica family, such as broccoli, cabbage and kale. To my taste, the mere idea of broccoli-flavored milk is right up there with koumiss.

Sensory testing, as the practice is known in food science, is no romantic candlelight dinner. The lights are bright, conversation is discouraged, and tasters never see the waiter's face. The purpose, after all, is to generate objective feedback, unencumbered by mood music or social graces. Sensory testing is all about science and business.

Take last December's trout test. The United States annually produces about 70 million pounds of farm-raised trout, 75 percent of that in Idaho, according to the United States Trout Farmers Association. On their way to market, the fish eat a high- protein diet that consists primarily of fish meal. Soybeans might offer an alternative source of protein, but using soy in place of fish meal raises a concern. Would soy change the taste or appearance of the fish?

The job of finding out fell to UMaine graduate student Natasha D'Souza. With support from a United Soybean Board grant and the guidance of UMaine food scientist Denise Skonberg, D'Souza designed a sensory test to compare trout raised on traditional fish meal to those given one of several soy-based feeds. Such tests fall under UMaine's human subject research policies, which look out for the health and safety of participants in university experiments. The regulations even cover participant compensation, which for taste testers are either 30-minute phone cards or points earned toward gift certificates.

Since I like trout, I signed up. Here's the routine: On entering UMaine's state-of-the-art sensory evaluation laboratory, I was informed about the purpose of the test and related risks, such as potential allergies to trout. Out of three samples — pieces of trout in small cups — I needed to select the one with the look, smell or taste that was different from the others. In addition to tasting cooked trout, I had to sniff samples of raw fish to determine if any had a different odor. I was glad that I had just gotten rid of a cold.

Sitting in a brightly lit testing room equipped with furniture that looks like study carrels in a library, I couldn't see the responses of the other guinea pigs, and they couldn't see mine. This is serious stuff. It felt as though we were taking a final exam. A list of rules on the wall warned against talking with neighbors, turning off lights or messing around with the computer in each cubicle that's used to record testers' answers.

The fish samples came on a tray that a latex-gloved hand pushed through a little window in the wall of my cubicle. "DO NOT EAT THE RAW FISH," warned the instruction form. Well, I like raw oysters and sushi topped with raw salmon and tuna, but never mind. I dutifully sniffed the fish in each cup, picked one that seemed a little different and recorded my choices.

Frankly, it was hard to tell any difference at all. One was a little pinker than the others. They smelled mild, fresh, slightly fishy. Who would have guessed?

After finishing both sets of samples, I pushed my tray back through the window. The gloved hand replaced it with another, this one with samples of cooked fish, a glass of water and a plastic fork wrapped in a paper napkin. The lights were hot, and a sip of water was welcome.

These uniformly round patties of cooked fish begged for sauces or cheese. When I think of eating trout, I picture fillets coming off the grill or a whole fish slowly broiled with butter and lemon, served with red potatoes and asparagus. I banished the thought and got to work. The first was a little dry and chewy, but not bad tasting. I breathed through my nose and tried to tease out extra flavors, as though trying a new wine. I spent a minute or two thinking about what I was experiencing, coming up with words to describe it: mild, smooth — well, trout-like.

I repeated this procedure with the other samples, rinsing my mouth with water between each one. It's important to cleanse the palate completely so as not to let lingering flavors interfere with the new sample. This is so significant that UMaine food scientist Mary Ellen Camire discourages people from smoking or drinking coffee before taste testing. Even some medications can interfere with taste, she says, and tasters taking pills may need to keep their buds under wraps for a while.

Sometimes, taste is less important than appearance. Skonberg reports that the trout tests revealed differences in the color of soy- and fish meal-fed trout. The former had a lighter color. Differences in odor or taste were not significant.

Most tests require testers to answer general questions. Is the appearance pleasing? How is the texture? Does it taste good? On the computer screen, I give answers by clicking on a scale from 1 for "dislike extremely" to 9 for "like extremely."

I've never given a sample a rating of 1, and a 9 is rare. Testing new foods is not a matter of separating the awful from the scrumptious. It's more a matter of subtleties. One might have a slightly more acceptable flavor or texture than another. However, I have had blueberry products that sing with great taste. I've tried new apple varieties that made me want to seek them out at the grocery store and boiled potatoes easily described as "creamy."

Camire says that what tasters bring to the task can be just as important as the food itself. For example, when scientists need to know how people feel about the color of a new apple variety, they weed out testers who are color-blind. And personal preferences make a difference. If you hate fish, your opinions about soy-fed trout probably wouldn't be useful. If you don't eat meat, you won't be asked to try the reheated hamburger mixed with flavor- preserving blueberry puree.

Food scientists have been doing sensory testing at UMaine since at least the 1930s, she says, and among other things, they have learned that testers are hardwired for taste. When it comes to bitterness, for example, about 25 percent of the Caucasian population has a high taste threshold. It takes a lot for these so-called "non-tasters" to register bitterness. On the other extreme are about 25 percent who are "supertasters," people who are far more sensitive to bitterness than the rest of us.

Getting around all this variation in taste is largely a matter of numbers. With enough people eating at the experimental trough, a general picture about consumer experience tends to emerge. It takes at least 50 people to generate reliable results with a given set of samples, says Camire.

I'm no supertaster, but I am committed to the cause. It's not that I'm looking for treats, hoping that lobster and brownies will come up more often than not, or that the compensation makes my day. I do have genuine respect for the product development process that takes years from conception to the appearance of a new item on store shelves. And I am pleased that there's no real substitute for the human palate. It's nice to know that in an age when robots make cars and you can go shopping without ever talking to a real person, human experience still counts. And I think mom would be proud.

by Nick Houtman
May-June, 2005

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