Inside job: Food testing panelist

Time Out discover that food tasting isn't as luxurious as it sounds

Time Out try every job in Shanghai. This month we learn what it means to be a professional food taster

A friend working in consumer products once described the job of his company’s food tasters, which sounded like quite a plum position until he told me one man was responsible for sampling the dog food. I always wondered what that guy told his children when they asked, ‘What did you do at work today?’ If he answered truthfully I doubt they ever volunteered Dad’s name to speak at school career day.

My thoughts were with that dog food taster even before I arrive at sensory test specialists MMR and the managing director, Australian Andrew Kuiler says, ‘Are you ready to try some cat food?’ This is a joke but I don’t flinch. I would be much happier eating food for cats than food for dogs since cats are snobs with more refined tastes while dogs are famous for loving the taste of their own butts. 

MMR helps some of the world’s most famous brands build superior products, and the Shanghai team interacts with those brands’ R&D teams to answer sensory questions about the Chinese consumer. Andrew says, ‘Clients come to us and ask how can we enhance flavour or how can we eliminate a high cost ingredient? Is it healthier? Does it last longer? Does a new product align with the brand?’

MMR doesn’t just focus on food and beverages, but also personal and household care, and gathers data on multiple aspects of sensory experience. This may include packaging or testing jingles to link music with product experience, according to Englishman James Gater, a senior sensory consultant, which is one business title that seems like it should open a lot of doors with women. Ladies, wouldn’t you rather introduce your girlfriends to your new ‘sensory consultant’ than to your new ‘boyfriend’?

Before taking me to the food tasting panel, sensory manager Jenny Zhao sets some glasses of pungent clear liquid between us and James asks if 11am is too early for baijiu. I shake my head although I want to say even midnight is too early for baijiu. As we taste, James gives a short tutorial outlining the five steps in tasting: 1. Appearance. Is it transparent? Does the liquid leave legs on the sides of the glass? 2. Aroma. which notes do you pick up on? Molasses? Dried fruit? 3. Flavour. James suggested slightly burnt, smoky notes. 4. Mouthfeel. Viscosity. 5. Aftertaste. How does it taste in the back of throat after a few seconds?After ten seconds? 

I struggle for descriptive words during the first sample. James wants the description to be as specific as possible while recognising this might often include abstract terms. Descriptions of a biscuit might result in its own lexicon of 80 different terms, so he is looking for a lot more than, ‘I like it’ or ‘I want more.’ The second sample loosens my tongue since describing in terms of comparison is much easier than describing one sample in isolation. The first one is smokier than the second. The second one has more of a complex fruitiness than the first one. Comparison as a quick entry point makes sense since it takes me ages to decide if I like a girl but only seconds to decide if I like her more than her friend.

We take an elevator up to the laboratory and I’m led into a long room containing a dozen isolation booths decked out with computers and red lights for reducing a sample’s visual influence. The isolation room is bookended by a large kitchen on one end and the conference room housing the tasting panel on the other. 

The panel is comprised of eight women and three men who have all passed a rigorous series of interviews: a sensory test to make sure the taster can say a lot more than ‘I like it’, a one-on-one interview, and another interview and test with the whole group. Today the panel will be testing chocolate bars and a milk product. Panelists only work three hours a day to prevent sensory saturation and MMR tries to counter this possibility by rotating a variety of different sensory products: green tea and dairy on one day and moisturiser on the next. 

Three chocolate samples are placed before us and I have a similar experience to the baijiu tasting – I have a hard time describing the first but a much easier time comparing the differences between the first and the second. Each panelist takes notes while sampling, and after each sample Jenny stands at the whiteboard and compiles feedback.

With each sample I can taste or smell one note, and when other panelists describe a second or third or fourth note, I’m honest and just shake my head. ‘Did you smell condensed milk?’ No. ‘Did you smell liquorice?’ No. ‘Was the saltiness in the second sample more or less than the first?’ I didn’t get saltiness in either sample. The five basic tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (like MSG), and I can only taste sweet at the beginning of the bite and sour in the aftertaste.

When I’m asked about mouthfeel and say, ‘Creamy but dissolves into grittiness’, the entire panel says ‘meiyou’ in unison. Jenny asks the group what I might mean by ‘gritty’ and the panel says ‘powdery’ in unison. To me, ‘powdery’ and ‘gritty’ seem fairly close, maybe close enough to look the other way and allow a rookie a small victory, but I’m impressed that they all disagree in the exact same way. If MMR recruits a good team, the hope is to get a panel of 12 saying the same thing.

Sensory science departments have existed for decades in Europe and the US, and large brands may have similar labs in-house, but the concept is new in China and MMR is a leader in this new market. And if you don’t think sensory science is doing important work, James tells me of a panel that smells armpits. Think of those brave men and women fighting the battle against body odour so you don’t have to.

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