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These people are paid to taste food

Before products hit grocery store shelves, they are tasted, touched, and smelled by sensory evaluators first. You may know them more informally as taste testers, but sensory evaluators do so much more than taste food. They test everything from fabrics to fragrances to pizza. Following is a transcript of the video.

Have you ever wondered – what would it be like to taste food for a living? Well, these people do. They’re called Sensory Evaluators. You might call them taste testers, but they’re so much more than that!

Gail Vance Civille:My name is Gail Vance Civille. I am the founder, owner, and president of Sensory Spectrum and I have been in the sensory business for over 50 years. You do the maths.

Sensory evaluators are trained for over 100 hours – more on that later. They evaluate the texture, flavour, or fragrance of a product. From toilet paper to chocolate to cheese, they test it all. Why do sensory evaluators do what they do?

Civille:Very often our job is to look at prototypes with some ingredients substituted so that we can tell the product developers, “Yes you are safe making this in the place of your current product and still having the same sensory properties.”

There’s a whole host of reasons why a product might change. Like swapping out an ingredient for something cheaper or healthier. Take, for instance, Kraft Mac & Cheese. Remember when they changed to all-natural ingredients? No preservatives or artificial dyes? But the flavour stayed the same. Boom! Thank your sensory evaluators.

Gail Vance Civille:The role of sensory evaluation is to stand at the shoulder or next to the product developer and say, “If you have a charge to make a new product, to make an improved product, to make an ingredient substitution, I am here as your ally and your cohort to tell you whether or not you succeeded. Were you able to maintain the appearance, the flavour and the texture of that product so that you are, you have achieved what you set out to do. That is my job. I stand there and say, “You know what, this is very very close. Or it’s spot on, I think you should move forward with it.”

So How would Gail describe cheese?

Civille:Cheese. There’s either sheep cow or goat dairy. So there’s milk and then there’s milk fat. And then there are the fermented notes that are in the milk. So let’s take cheddar cheese, which is a cow milk cheese that has milky notes, milk fat notes, nutty notes, skunky notes, sometimes faecal – or as we like to describe the technical term poop – and it actually belongs there. When you have farmhouse cheddar cheeses from England or Scotland or Wales or some places in Australia, you will have a faecal note that belongs there and then you also will have potentially some fruity notes as well. And salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. And then you have all the textures which is the hardness and the melt and the chewiness or cohesiveness and how fast it disappears in your mouth and whether or not it leaves a fatty film.

To evaluate a new or altered product, they gather a panel. Each panelist is handed a sample – in this case, pasta sauce. They will taste the sauce and evaluate its flavour, texture, and smell. Then they rate each attribute on a scale. There’s an entire book of terms to describe different foods. Gail wrote it.

How do these panelists identify how salty or sweet something is? During training, they’re exposed to different levels of flavour. A 2 Salt is very mildly salty. While a 20 Salt is closer to ocean water, and so on. Panelists learn these until they’re second nature.

Civille:The whole idea of being a great panelist is to never think about what you’re doing. Just do it. Like a hockey goalie, just catch the puck. You’re no longer mentally processing. You’re doing this – when I taste I literally feel like the sample goes into my mouth and then the sample tells me about itself.

How has this training affected sensory evaluators in their daily lives?

Civille:I’m not a normal consumer. I am not normal. I am very picky. If I’m in a restaurant where a lot of people are wearing fragrance I will not enjoy it. if I’m in a place that still allows smoking, and somebody is smoking nearby me I will not be having a good time. So it has jaded me or poisoned me or corrupted me – use whatever word you choose – to being really obsessively picky about what I’m eating, where I’m eating, and when I’m eating.

For better or worse, actually tasting what you eat may be a good thing.

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