Best Buds

Sharp-tongued, opinionated, and able to discern the proportions of sweetness, acidity, salt, and bitterness in a single bite of food, they’re the gifted tasters whose palates help create the flavors of our lives.

Fifteen of us are crammed into an ordinary conference room, chewing cubes of cheese with great deliberation. We smell them, break them apart with our fingertips, and slowly bite into them. We let the cheese sit on our tongues before we start to chew. Some of us keep our heads bowed, some of us stare at the ceiling while deciphering that last, lingering aftertaste. And then we spit—as discreetly as possible. The final bits are expelled into a Styrofoam coffee cup.

This is about as far from actual eating as any interaction with food could be, and I am a little out of my league.

I like to eat. So, as the samples come marching out, I don’t want to nibble, and I certainly don’t want to spit. I want to eat. And that is my first failure as a (wannabe) professional taste tester.

The veteran nibblers, sniffers, and spitters around me are taste panelists for Land O’Lakes’s sensory department. This morning they tasted more than 30 spreads. This afternoon they will taste a similar number of cheese samples. Tomorrow, most will come in and do it all over again. You can see why there isn’t much actual consumption.

As professional taste panelists—paid contract employees with sensitive palates and expansive vocabularies—this group plays an important part in a long process that ultimately determines how processed food will taste, smell, and feel in your mouth.

You might expect the panelists to be a little more extraordinary, given the power they wield. You might expect lab coats, or men and women driven to distraction by a heightened awareness. You might expect foodies, who enjoy dropping the word umami on unsuspecting friends. But, no, these are ordinary people in comfortable sweaters—the type you see at the supermarket in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Many are past retirement age. Most, I am told, are attracted by the flexible hours.

“Most people here have something else on their plate, maybe kids or elderly parents to take care of,” says Sheryl Senyk, a panelist. Nodding toward the three men on the panel, she adds, sotto voce, “I think the men who do come here—I think it’s because they’re retired and their wives are at home and they need a break.”

A couple of decades ago, an in–house panel like this was pretty much unheard of. Today, nearly every large food company has one. Smaller producers may have a panel specifically trained on their own products, or they may outsource testing. In the past five years, according to an industry survey, about two–thirds of food companies have stepped up their analysis efforts.

Increased competition for consumers’ eyes, taste buds, and dollars is driving the change, according to Nancy Eicher, sensory scientist and vice president of Food Perspectives, a Plymouth–based product–development consultancy.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s—the heyday of branded products—products could be introduced and then fine–tuned,” Eicher explains. “But the world has gone on fast-forward in the past 10 or 15 years. For a new product to get attention and generate repeat sales, it has to work on every level. As a food producer, I don’t get a second chance. I need to use every tool available.”

And one of the most important tools is the good old–fashioned taste bud.

Sensory science has come a long way since the days of the “executive home use tests,” says Eicher, who has been in the business since 1982. In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, product testing usually went like this: the big boss took a new food home to the wife and kids to see if they liked it.

Even now, many entered the sensory branch of food science without much formal training. Lori Kruse, manager of the sensory department at Land O’Lakes, got her degree in food science at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s but, as she remembers, “I think there was maybe one course in sensory science when I was in school.”

Early in her career, when she was developing frozen pizzas for a division of Schwan’s, Kruse was asked to start a sensory division from scratch. “I was interested in the sensory part [of food science],” she says, “so I said yes.”

Sensory professionals entering the field today are more likely to have specialized degrees. And the opportunities for them in the world of product development go beyond food science. According to Eicher, “There’s sensory science behind everything you deal with on a daily basis.” Car companies, for example, employ testers for the smell and feel of the leather seats; paint company testers rate depth of color and sheen.

The Land O’Lakes panelists necessarily specialize in dairy products but have also been called on to evaluate brownies, ice cream, amaranth (a high-protein grain), and whey (the liquid that’s a byproduct of cheesemaking), as well as inedibles such as body care and office products.

MY SECOND FAILURE AS A TASTER: I can’t keep my opinions to myself. The final cheese sample is just awful. It has the texture, firmness, and flavor of a rubber spatula. I wait for somebody to say so. They must have noticed. But nobody in the conference room even grimaces. They dutifully note that the cheese is less salty and lower on the “nutty” and “aged” scales than the others.

“There’s no good and bad in here!” Julie Boutaghou, a Land O’Lakes food scientist who is facilitating the tasting, cheerfully reminds me and the panelists. Not only is she not interested in what panelists like and don’t like, but such discussions are a distraction from the task at hand. We’re here to rate the cheeses on the intensity of some 40 specific flavor attributes, from how sour they smell to how long they last on the tongue and how sweet or salty they taste.

And that, Eicher tells me later, is not something our brains are very good at.

“That’s just biologically not the way we think,” she says. “Your brain does not process flavor and aroma the way it processes hearing and vision. The olfactory sense is such a defensive mechanism—think about dogs and the way they react to smell. We’re not wired to label flavor and aroma. We’re wired to react to them.”

So, when the Land O’Lakes panelists come to work for each session, they always start with an hour or so of preparatory work, starting with four tiny tubs of skim milk—one plain, the others spiked with salt, vinegar, and yeast. (Unfortunately, during my visit, these appetizers preceded the explanation of expectoration etiquette. After I downed the sample saturated with salt and eyed the one containing vinegar, one panelist kindly offered me a spit cup.)

These serve as reminders, or “references,” of basic flavors the panel will seek out in the samples they taste later. Then come the cheese cubes, labeled E through M. As the panelists taste these, they call out descriptors—aged, nutty, salty, yeasty. Boutaghou keeps the discussion moving and writes comments on a whiteboard.

“This is very familiar territory for them,” she explains. “This panel has probably tasted Swiss cheese 20 or so times before.”

Before tasting a particular product as a panel, the group will spend time, led by Boutaghou, agreeing to a specialized vocabulary and references—for example, settling on one particular sample as “nutty.” Some of this vocabulary is a little offbeat, but all of it is proprietary and I am warned not to divulge the more specialized words. The world of product development is highly secretive.

Next comes the heavy lifting, an exercise that comes closest to the real work they will do in the tasting rooms: two similar slices of cheese, side by side on paper plates. They mark worksheets comparing the samples, creating a detailed description of color, firmness, aroma, flavor, and aftertaste.

I’m at something of a loss. I can identify the easy stuff—the vinegar — and yeast–spiked milk. But now, examining the final slices, I’m hard–pressed to say exactly how they differ. The sensory panelists, however, zero in on individual attributes, confidently declaring one more yeasty than the other, another more aged. One cheese lasted longer on the tongue, another had a milder aftertaste. I’m still trying to get past the judgmental “good,” “bad,” and “Are you kidding?”

Neither Kruse nor Boutaghou will tell me what the panel is testing for today. In fact, the panelists themselves never know. A food scientist may have ordered the test because he or she is trying out a new ingredient or a process. This may be part of the quality control process, ensuring consistent flavors. Or the data may be cross–referenced with consumer preference tests—in which untrained panelists tell researchers what they like and do not like—producing a specific profile for product developers to aim for.

“Consumers can tell you what they like, but they can’t tell you why,” Eicher explains. “The descriptive testing [by trained panelists] helps tell you why one sample is preferred over the other.”

EVEN BEFORE WE GOT STARTED, I had inadvertently committed several taster sins. I stopped for coffee on the way to Land O’Lakes’s Arden Hills campus, deadening my senses. I was wearing a little perfume. And I cavalierly tossed my jacket—musty at winter’s end—over the back of my chair. Because so much of flavor comes through our olfactory senses, panelists are asked to avoid bringing any kind of odor into the tasting room.

Land O’Lakes rotates two panels of a dozen or so people each. They work as needed, generally every other week, for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon. Kruse won’t tell me how much the panelists are paid—again, proprietary information—but messages posted on indicate a range of $10 to $25 an hour. Food Perspectives pays testers $15 to $26 an hour.

Kruse says she recruits new panelists every couple of years, usually at information sessions advertised by word of mouth. “We’re looking for people who are articulate, who can talk about the flavors they’re experiencing,” she says. Panelists also must have a high level of taste acuity. For that, they go through rigorous testing—about a dozen tests over the course of three days. In one, potential panelists are given three samples, two of which are identical, and they have to identify the one that just doesn’t belong.

“It’s really fun to go to the grocery store and look for, say, two kinds of Havarti that look really similar,” Boutaghou says. “Sometimes we’re in the kitchen and we think, ‘Nah, this one is way too easy.’ But I know that in the testing booth, it’s actually going to be much harder for them.” Only one in three applicants passes muster.

In addition to minute taste differences, panelists have to be able to sense all the basic flavors. That disqualifies a quarter of the population, people who are genetically taste–blind, unable to sense bitterness. (On the other end of the spectrum are the “supertasters,” whose dense taste buds cause them to experience flavors at an often–uncomfortable intensity.)

After the warm–up, the real testing begins. Panelists sit in a row of isolation booths with window shades that open into the lab kitchen. Higher air pressure in the tasting room keeps stray odors from sneaking in. They begin sniffing, breaking, and thoughtfully chewing their slices of Swiss cheese, 16 in all. And, of course, spitting.

“This is really hard work,” Boutaghou says. “This isn’t the way most people think about their food.”

She swears, however, that her line of work hasn’t ruined her enjoyment of food. “I love food,” she says. “I think most people who go into food science love food.”

At least one panelist, however, has trouble switching back into civilian mode. “When we go out,” she admits, “my friends sometimes ask me why I’m smelling my food. I can’t help it.”

Tricia Cornell is editor of Minnesota Parent and Good Age.