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Sensory evaluation lab seeks campus input on food products

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The power to influence what shows up on supermarket shelves is within the Purdue community’s grasp at the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory. Part of the Department of Food Science, the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory sets up tests for food companies to find out what the average consumer thinks about a product.

Purdue's Sensory Evaluation Laboratory
Several product testers try brownies in the Purdue Department of Food Science Sensory Evaluation Laboratory and record their responses by following instructions on computer screens.

“We used to call it taste testing, but when you taste you use more than taste buds,” says Steve Smith, manager of the Pilot Lab. “You use all the senses. Your sense of smell is a very important part of taste. If the food doesn’t look good, you’re probably not going to eat it. You even use your ears. If you bite down on lettuce, you want it to have that nice crunch to it.”

Some tests compare one product against another, some look at the addition of a new ingredient and others analyze whether a new product will be viable in the marketplace. The lab has worked with companies such as Nestlé, Campbell’s and Mrs. Fields to test everything from soups to ice cream to trail mix.

One of the most frequent clients is Kroger, which sponsored the lab. The lab opened in the Food Science Building in 1998.

“These companies come to our lab because when they do sensory evaluation work in-house, it becomes a little bit inbred,” Smith says. “They become overly sensitive to really small variations. But the real question they’re trying to answer is, will the average consumer be able to tell the difference.”

Tests generally call for 100 participants and are open to Purdue employees and students. Smith sends an e-mail alert about each test, and he currently has about 500 people on the notification list.

“Sometimes we have to go around and recruit people in the hallways,” Smith says. “We like to get a wider range of people so we don’t have the same group all the time.”

The lab is divided into two areas: the preparation room and the panelist room. In the former, students run the test and prep the food samples as well as prepare a report to send to the food company on the same day.

Smith sums up the design of the panelist room with one word: bland. But that’s simply part of the room’s function — to eliminate all distractions so the focus stays on the food.

“The design really utilizes some psychological things,” he says. “Each participant has a private tasting area so that the person won’t be affected by others in the group. It’s a quiet space, and it also needs to have the proper lighting. There aren’t any paintings or bright colors to draw your attention.”

Ventilation is controlled to keep odors from the food preparation room from transferring to the panelists, who receive their samples through small doors that go up and down at the front of each booth.

During a recent test of a new chicken quesadilla Hot Pocket sandwich, participants received two samples to compare. They were asked for their opinions on the flavor and texture of the cheese, sauce and chicken as well as which sample they preferred. Participants also were asked questions about themselves and their purchasing habits.

The panelists received a treat for completing the evaluation. On that day, the reward was candy, but fruit and yogurt are also given out frequently.

Barbara Davies, secretary in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, tried out the Hot Pockets.

“I thought they were good,” she says. “Hot Pockets always seem to be a popular item at the lab.”

Davies has participated in the tests for almost three years and enjoys rounding up new participants.

“I thought it sounded interesting, and I love the idea of giving them my input,” she says. “Being a participant helps the lab, and it’s fun to do. I’ve tried things over there I wouldn’t have tried on my own. All around it’s a good experience.”

How to participate
To receive e-mail notification about tests going on at the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory, contact Steve Smith at smithrs@purdue.edu

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