Educated tastes. Move over, Goldilocks: Taste-testing is a science that demands a precision palate
Mount Vernon, N.Y.
THE long room is divided into private booths, each dimly bathed in red light. Winifred Conkling steps into chamber No. 7. Sitting down in a swivel chair, she stares at a small door in the wall and waits. Others are in booths to the left and right of her, but she can't see what they are doing. In the hush, all she can hear is the sound of chewing. Suddenly the little door pops open and a hand thrusts a steaming plate onto the counter before her - Sample 238. The red light distorts the color of the food, but her nose knows it's a pancake. She cuts a piece from the center, puts it in her mouth, and chews thoughtfully.Skip to next paragraph
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The taste and smell of wheat hit her senses; she finds ``wheat'' listed on the ballot served with the food, and she pencils in a 4 (out of a possible high of 15). The wheat has a slightly raw taste; she gives it a 1 for ``rawness.'' Sweetness is noticeable, but the taste of leavening is not; she writes in 3 for ``sweetness,'' 0 for ``leavening.'' There's a hint of dairy and egg tastes, so she scores 1 for each. As she continues chewing, the pancake balls up and has a slimy, greasy mouthfeel; she scores a 6 for ``cohesiveness,'' a 4 for ``greasiness.'' Then she unceremoniously spits out the wad of pancake and presses a button to signal that she's ready for the next sample.
Twice a day for half an hour, Ms. Conkling and 20 other adventurous recruits take time out from their jobs as engineers, technicians, writers, secretaries, and statisticians here at Consumers Union to explore the world of food, both flavor and texture. They sip beverages, savor spaghetti sauce, nibble turkey, and chomp chocolate bars, carefully analyzing and recording their every sensation.
The data that emerge are the basis for the product ratings of packaged, canned, and frozen foods in Consumer Reports, a monthly magazine whose judgments are closely watched by both subscribers and food manufacturers. In its testing labs here in suburban New York, the 51-year-old Consumers Union, which publishes the reports, rates 12 food products a year - everything from soup to peanut butter. (In-house taste testing, like other volunteer activities at CU, has been temporarily suspended while union contract negotiations are going on.)
Taste-testing may sound like fun, but when the stakes - a company's reputation - are high, the work is intense and thorough. Testers may be called upon to taste, for months on end, such things as breakfast cereal, syrup without pancakes, and pancakes without syrup.
``Sensory evaluation is a scientific discipline, so we have terminology; you can't say, `Mmmmm, this is good,' or `Yuck,''' says Louise Miller Mann, head of the Sensory Evaluation lab here.
``Learning to taste is like learning to appreciate music. At first [the listener] can't distinguish one symphony from another, but gradually he can pick out the sound of the oboe, the clarinet. In the same way [the taster] learns he can pick out the oats or wheat - raw or toasted - from the total product.''
For the testers, getting past the rigorous screening is a formidable hurdle.
When Mrs. Mann called for volunteers recently to serve on taste panels, 200 eager CU staff members responded. She gave each one a probing interview. ``I wanted to see if they were interested in what I was doing,'' she says, remarking that motivation is pretty important to get through six weeks of testing a food product. ``Did they take it seriously, or did they think my questions were silly?''
Each would-be taster had to identify the four basic tastes - sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Some people get those confused, says Mann, who has a master's degree in food science. There were also tests for differing intensities of sweetness and firmness, and a test for common odors to see how well the volunteers identified smells.
After the month-long screening process, only 45 people were left, and half of those opted out because they couldn't spare the extra time the twice-daily tastings require.
Food snobs were not among the chosen. Media liaison Marnie Goodman, who got screened out, says ruefully, ``At first I thought it was because I had a tin palate, and I was heartbroken. But Louise told me it was because I had an aversion to processed food, which is mostly what they test.''