A small door slides open and a hand pushes out Sample 322. Crunch. Crunch. Mmmm, tastes like blueberry.
Flip a switch and the door opens again with Sample 763. This one definitely has a strawberry tinge to it.
Recently, more than 100 students, staff and faculty members participated in a blind taste test in the Food Science and Nutrition Sensory Laboratory at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The volunteers, who got an ice cream cone coupon for their efforts, were tasked to see which of three granola samples worked best for them.
The study’s results will be included in a presentation that Steve Adamski and Sarah Newsome, both seniors in food science and nutrition, will give at the Institute of Food Technologists’ International Food Expo to be held in July in Chicago. The event brings together food scientists and industry professionals from companies like Del Monte Foods, General Mills, H.J. Heinz and Kellogg’s.
Adamski and Newsome have earned a scholarship to attend and hope that their presentation will help them take first place in the student competition—and earn a $4,000 prize. The taste test is part of a product development class that the pair are taking at MU. The students are also conducting shelf life studies in the microbiology lab.
The volunteers were testing to see if they preferred a specific oats product to two similar, but store-bought brands. The results are also designed to see if the taste preferences are influenced by different age or gender demographics.
Adamski and Newsome, though still undergraduates, have started a successful food making and merchandizing business called Herbal Oats. Their four flavors—Strength, Energy, Immunity and Focus—are prepared by the two and sold in Columbia. The pair are considering expanding the business after graduation. One of the samples was their own product.
Taste Preferences, On a Scale of One to Nine
The sensory lab at CAFNR handles preference testing for a variety of new, modified or experimental products ranging from new ice cream flavors to pork chops.
Volunteer testers participate in everything from simple tests to determine their preferences between two products to more elaborate research, such as finding out if they can detect a freshly cooked product versus a frozen one.
Student class assignments and significant faculty research projects can go through the lab. The lab was an important component in CAFNR’s research in the 1980s to help develop a low-fat ice cream. In that work, researchers tried various flavors and ingredients to simulate the creamy texture and satisfying mouth feel experience of true ice cream.
Sensory labs can also determine odor annoyance thresholds, aftertaste and the influence of color in food. It can also allow food scientists to see if certain cooking, storage or processing techniques are deemed superior by the eater. Sometimes, ingredients like salt, which can trigger high blood pressure, are gradually reduced in the samples. Researchers here are looking to see at what point the volunteers determine the eating experience is substandard.
The testing instrument can be as elaborate as needed, but most stick to a simple-to-analyze nine-point scale. To keep the results unbiased, panelists cannot speak or speak to one another during the testing.
Food tasting laboratories are a key ingredient in how food companies evaluate new products.
Students who help administer the tests learn valuable skills that could be transferred to these companies. Diverse areas as biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, molecular biology, nutrition and microbiology can be involved in taste testing.
Sensory labs have been around since the 1970s—an effort to objectively measure food characteristics that previously had been judged through haphazard and subjective methods.
The CAFNR unit was created 20 years ago when Eckles Hall was refurbished.
Ice cream testing is still done at the Sensory Laboratory—Buck’s Ice Cream Pilot Plant is just a few steps away. More recently, meat from the Mizzou Meat Market down the hall has been evaluated. Tastings for the new experimental winery, part of CAFNR’s Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology program, may begin later.
And the Winner is…
Newsome and Adamski are analyzing results in preparation for their Chicago presentation. They’re not saying, so far, if their product won out over the supermarket competition.
However, they indicated that they are happy with the data collected, a hint as to which sample got the best score.
Let CAFNR know what you think
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