When the LDS Church Welfare System wanted to know if its chicken-noodle soup was just as good as Campbell's, it asked Lynn Ogden for help.
A number of companies come to Ogden when they want to know if their food product needs a little more of this and a little less of that to meet the public's finicky taste preferences.Ogden, an associate professor of Food Science at Brigham Young University, runs a "sensory laboratory" at the school. That is, he finds people willing to taste foods.
He believes there is still no substitute for the human tongue as a testing instrument when it comes to taste.
"When you're in the business of providing products to the consumer, you have to be able to predict which will be acceptable," Ogden said. "The science of sensory analysis has been developed to harness the human response."
BYU has operated its sensory lab for four years. Sensory analysis is a fairly new science. It was pioneered by the U.S. Army, which "is in the business of feeding a lot of soldiers and providing meals under stressful conditions," Ogden said. What's more, he said, the food has to be edible.
Ogden does three kinds of tests for companies at BYU: a preference test, a difference test and a descriptive analysis.
In a preference test, volunteers are asked to taste and compare two products and indicate which product they prefer - judging everything from flavor to color to texture.
Based on results of such a test, food scientists are able to alter a product to conform to public preference.
This is the test used in comparing the welfare system's soup to Campbell's soup. Volunteers said the welfare system's brand was too salty and too dark but generally good.
"We found out it wasn't all that bad, but there were a few things we could do to make it better," Ogden said.
In the second test, volunteers try to discern differences in two similar products - different makes of peanut butter, for example. This test helps food companies know whether changing one or more ingredients - purchasing peanuts from a new supplier, for instance - makes a difference in a product's taste.
The test is also used when one company is trying to match the taste of a product made by another company, such as matching the taste of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
For descriptive analyses, a highly trained panel describes one or more characteristics of a food product - flavor, aroma, texture, quality, etc. Discriminating taste buds are a must.
Consider this: Trained tasters can detect as many as 15 different flavors in milk - from a feed-induced flavor to a malty flavor.
In one test, Ogden used descriptive analysis to help the BYU Diary figure out what caused "seamy cheddar cheese." Ogden hypothesized that cheese looks seamy when cheese milk is allowed to get cold before being poured into a cheesemaking vat.
In order to test his theory, Ogden trained a panel to detect varying levels of the seaminess in cheese. They tested 18 batches of the stuff.
"They became our seamyometer," Ogden said.
BYU does the first two types of tests most often - approximately 45 each year for private companies. Ogden won't divulge the names of the companies for proprietary reasons but says they are "six major national consumer product and institutional food product suppliers."
Testing panels range in size from 50 to 400 drawn from faculty, staff and students. Volunteers are paid $3 for lending their taste buds to science.
Students in the Food Science program get invaluable experience running and participating in the sensory labs, Ogden said. Many of the companies that hire food science and nutrition majors operate such labs.
Last week I volunteered, along with 399 other people, to put an anonymous brand of chip dip to a taste test at Brigham Young University's sensory lab.
The sensory lab is located in a small room just inside the the Widtsoe Building. The room is lined with partitioned cubicles. I sit at one.
A sliding, pass-through compartment fills the bottom half of the wall facing me. I can't see whoever is in the kitchen behind the wall, administering the taste test. I have no idea whose product I'm about to taste, either.
A sign before me says to flip a green switch when I'm ready to begin my test. I flip it.
The partition opens to reveal a green tray filled with items. There is a cup of water, a single cracker, a handful of chips, two containers filled with generous dollops of dip and a questionnaire.
The container of dip on the left is No. 139, the one on the right No. 576. I've been told the actual product being tested is rotated between the two numbers during the test.
From the partition next to me comes the sound of crunching.
The questionnaire asks how old I am, my gender, where I grew up, whether I like chip dip and if I have eaten any dip lately.
The questionnaire tells me to bite the cracker, sip some water and taste the dip on the left. Then, I'm to repeat the process, tasting the dip on the right.
Now I'm supposed to indicated which dip has the best appearance, taste and texture. Hmmm. OK. It's No. 139.
Or did No. 576 taste better? I try them both again. Yes, there's a hint of garlic there. I change my answer to the taste question.
My job as a taste tester finished, I slide the tray back into the compartment and flip the red switch.
Now I've had a nice little snack and made a small, but clearly invaluable, contribution to science.