People with discerning taste get paid to eat

Monday, June 12, 2006

GRIFFIN, Ga. -- Most people work to eat, but for food scientist Anna Resurreccion's employees, eating is their work -- at least on a part-time basis.

Resurreccion periodically convenes taste panels to evaluate the texture and taste of foods ranging from shrimp to peanut butter to steaks.

To improve a new product's odds of being a hit with consumers, food companies conduct extensive market and sensory research with the help of a university or private lab before a launch. Some of that testing is done at the University of Georgia's experiment station in Griffin, about 40 miles south of Atlanta.

During Resurreccion's 22 years at the station, she has built a network of 35 people with sensitive taste buds who do analytical testing and hundreds of others who evaluate the taste, flavor and appearance of foods from a consumer's perspective. She also brings in focus groups to consider the merits of potential products.

Because these are scientific studies, the analytical tasters must calibrate their taste buds for an hour before taking their first bite.

"They're like instruments in evaluating a product -- in fact they are better than instruments," Resurreccion said. "We haven't found an instrument yet that can duplicate the human."

The calibration process involves sipping solutions containing varying concentrations of the four basic tastes -- salty, sour, sweet and bitter -- which they rate on a 150-point scale.

Once they're all in sync and rating the concentrations correctly and uniformly, the evaluators file into a long-narrow corridor, where each sits in near isolation in front of a computer terminal.

Each tester uses a computer mouse to record responses. In some tests, the evaluators can freshen their buds from a pitcher of water.

The testers open a small door in the wall in front of them to remove food samples placed there by a technician on the other side.

"It's a lot of fun," said Paula Scott, who has been taste-testing at the lab for about 20 years. "It's really strange to be able to take a taste of something and actually divide up what it's made up of on a scale of zero to 150."

When people learn of Scott's work, some are envious.

"They're like, 'Wow.' They find it amazing that you can do that with your tongue," she said.

Resurreccion said she has to test about 50 people before finding one with taste buds sensitive enough for the work. Candidates must identify the four basic flavors by sipping water with almost undetectable levels. They also must identify common food flavors such as pineapple, vanilla, orange and lemon, by opening small bottles and sniffing.

For the less-demanding consumer tests, she can bring in panelists from about 4,000 households in the Atlanta area. They include retirees, homemakers and others who have flexible schedules and want to put their taste buds to work for $10 per hour. Analytical tasters are paid the same, but earn more because their tests last longer.

A requirement for the consumer testers is that they regularly consume the type of product being evaluated, whether it's shrimp, potato chips or cookies.

Scott became a consumer panelist after learning about the opportunity from a neighbor. After a couple of years, she moved into analytical testing. Four years ago she was hired as a full-time lab technician at the university's Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center, which includes Resurreccion's laboratory.

"She has a palate like an instrument," Resurreccion said. "Not only is she accurate, but she does it fast. We have a few like her."

The lab is equipped with highly sophisticated instruments that can analyze food ingredients in minute detail. But when it comes to taste and flavor, there's no substitute for the 10,000 taste buds on the human tongue.

Much of the sensory work at the lab is focused on Georgia products such as peanuts, chicken and Vidalia onions, but it has also conducted confidential research for major U.S. food companies and for entrepreneurs as far away as the Philippines, Bulgaria and Thailand.

"If a cookie, potato chip or cereal is merely acceptable, that's no guarantee it will be a success," she said. "The product should delight consumers."

Jena Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing at the National Food Laboratory, a private food research lab in Dublin, Calif., said smart and successful food companies rely on a team of sensory scientists, chemists, microbiologists and marketing experts to assist in product development and improvements.

"When a consumer opens that package, what do they smell and then what do they taste?" she said. "If it's a granola bar ... the texture a consumer might be looking for might be crunchy with some mouth feel, some texture, some chewiness. If it's gooey, then maybe that's something they're not expecting."

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