The kids at Abernethy Elementary School are wide-eyed with anticipation. They’ve assembled in the school’s cafeteria to lend their expert opinion to the question of school lunch. In particular, the grown-ups in charge want to know which the kids prefer: hamburgers made from local Northwest-grown natural beef or pre-cooked standard-issue USDA patties.
Ann Colonna, who runs Oregon State University’s Sensory Science Program at the Food Innovation Center, is conducting the taste test. Colonna works with food industries from throughout the U.S. to test new products with consumers. On any given day, she might be testing products from baby food to wine with consumers who range from busy families to high-end gourmands. For this test, her target consumers are 9- to 11-year-olds in an elementary school cafeteria. Weeks earlier, she tested another group of school-age kids to determine if they could tell the difference between the two kinds of burgers. “They can definitely tell the difference,” she said. “So, this test will see which burger they prefer.”
In the adjoining kitchen, Cory Schreiber pulls a large tray of baked burger patties from the school’s oversized oven. Baking pre-packaged burgers was not in Schreiber’s repertoire at his Wildwood Restaurant, where he worked as one of Portland’s premiere chefs and led Oregon’s local food movement. Now he works for the Oregon Department of Agriculture and leads their Farm-to-School Program, getting fresh local food into Oregon school lunch programs.
He loads each patty onto identical buns (no ketchup, mustard, pickles, or onions) then cuts the burgers into quarters and places each sample on a paper plate labeled with a random number code. Half are local beef with a sprinkle of salt, the other half are USDA school-lunch commodity beef with added flavors and color. Only Colonna and Schreiber know which is which.
Meanwhile, Colonna prepares the testers. “You think you like some food because you like the ads for that food. But what if you get the chance to compare that food with other food just like it—and you don’t know which is which? You might be surprised by which one you really like best.”
Schreiber enters the cafeteria with a tray full of samples and distributes two numbered plates to each of the eager testers. “We want to know which one you like best, and why.” Then he sticks out his tongue. “This,” he explains, “is what you’ll use to decide what you like.”
The kids take their job seriously. Prompted by Colonna and Schreiber, they examine the burgers, sniff them, lick them, and nibble a bit off each one, back and forth, contemplating the taste and texture of each sample, and recording their responses on a paper ballot. When it comes time for each tester to vote for his or her preferred burger, Colonna notes some peeking at next-door-neighbor responses.
“The tests we conduct at the lab are far more controlled,” she said, referring to the state-of-the-science facilities at the Food Innovation Center in Portland’s Pearl District. That’s where Colonna tests products against some of the most discriminating tasters anywhere: Oregonians.
Surrounded by some of the finest food produced in the world—wine, seafood, fresh fruits, and meats—Oregonians know good food. And Portland is the beating heart of the local food movement in Oregon.
“Portland is a great place for testing new food products,” said Michael Morrissey, the director of the Food Innovation Center. “There’s a large population here representing many different groups with varied tastes; it’s a gathering place for alternative food systems and people who pay attention to the food they eat.”
The Food Innovation Center is the first urban agricultural experiment station in the United States. A partnership between OSU and ODA, the center was created in 2000 to enhance the profitability of Pacific Northwest food industries. It began by helping small-scale start-up companies find success through innovation and entrepreneurship. More recently, larger, established Oregon food manufacturers have come to the Food Innovation Center for help with product development, sensory testing, packaging design, and marketing.
The food industry is highly competitive. Profits are made or lost depending on consumer response to subtle differences in products and marketing. Sensory science provides an objective, experimental approach to measure consumer response towards particular products before they go to market, providing real-life data that industries can use to guide their product development and marketing decisions.
“We design people-oriented tests, and our clients use the results to create people-oriented products,” explained Colonna. If the subject is surimi, Colonna will find out exactly who, why, when, where, and how much people like to eat surimi, using all the appropriate scientific measures and controls. In almost all cases, sensory testing is done confidentially; food companies don’t necessarily want their competitors to know that they are testing a new recipe or developing a new product. Colonna meets with the client to determine if she will be testing the product (how does it taste?) or testing the marketplace (who likes this product and is likely to buy it?).
After she’s determined the goals and designed the tests, she gathers her volunteers. Colonna maintains a list of more than 5,000 volunteer tasters in the Portland area. She screens her prospective consumers so they match the critical market for the particular product but are not associated with the food industry in any way.
Does she look for consumers with distinctively discerning taste? “No!” she asserts. “We don’t want people who are too practiced, too fluent with the vocabulary of taste. We want volunteers who represent regular people.” But, she adds, it helps a lot if testers have strong opinions about what they like.
On another day, Colonna was testing pears for the Northwest Pear Bureau. She recruited 120 volunteers and divided them into groups of ten to come to the Food Innovation Center for testing. After a brief welcome, volunteers were seated in individual testing booths—little cubicles painted white and brightly lit, equipped with a desk, a computer, and a pass-through window. On the other side of the window, the sweet smell of pears perfumed the laboratory and plates of ripe fruit lined the stainless-steel countertop.
The window opened and a sample of pear was delivered on a numbered cardboard plate. The computer prompted each person to taste the pear and answer the first—and most general—question: “Overall, how much do you like the taste of this sample?” The questions continued, asking the testers to rate each sample on a 9-point scale, digitizing their opinions about grainy or smooth, soft or firm, tough-skinned or tender.
After the aroma sniffing, lip smacking, and thoughtful scoring were completed and the volunteers departed, Colonna analyzed a pile of computerized opinions. With each test, she provides her clients with a binder-size report that synthesizes the preferences into a sort of consumer-based blueprint for marketplace success.
“The consumer testing helped us answer a number of questions regarding flavor, consumer preferences, packaging, and marketing,” a recent client remarked, “and we believe the (sensory) information provided certainly gave us a clearer road map to making successful decisions.”
The results from the elementary school’s burger preference test were much simpler and less definitive. Votes split down the middle: half the kids preferred the USDA burgers (“it tasted like bacon”); and half preferred the local beef (“it tasted like what we have at home”). The kids went home that day encouraged to think about why they’re eating what they’re eating. A good question for us all.