FEATURE1 January 2011

This month we... failed a sensory test

Robert Bain tries to begin a new career as a food taster in a sensory research lab, and finds it tougher than he expected.


When I hear the words ‘food taster’, the image that comes to mind is of a rotund Egyptian being carried away on a stretcher, clutching his stomach in pain. It comes from the comic book Asterix and Cleopatra, in which the queen is saved by her taster when he tests a poisoned piece of cake she has been given.

So the profession was not one that I aspired to before consumer research agency MMR invited Research to take part in the sensory screening test they use to recruit for their panel. Becoming a taster, like becoming a market researcher, seems to be something people fall in to.

“I have that frustrating feeling of knowing a smell is familiar, but not knowing what it is – like when you think you a remember a dream but find it evaporates as soon as you try to describe it to someone”

The tasters employed by MMR mostly fall into the job as a way to earn some money part-time, putting in an average of about 10 hours a week. The agency regularly replenishes its panel with new recruits, so Research joined a dozen or so candidates at the sensory research lab the agency runs in conjunction with the University of Reading. I came along hoping to find out more about sensory research, but I wasn’t ruling out a new career eating food for a living if the test revealed me to be some kind of sensory prodigy.

MMR’s sensory guru Christine Barnagaud meets me on arrival and takes me through the process. She is looking for people with keen senses of smell, taste and vision, who are not among the third or so of people who are ‘blind’ to bitter flavours, and who have a wide enough vocabulary to describe sensations clearly. She’ll be watching out for consistency, with many of the samples duplicated to check if we can tell what’s the same and what’s different.

Typically, less than a quarter of applicants get through the test, Christine says, and this is only the first stage in the selection process. Successful candidates won’t find themselves protecting the queen of Egypt, but they will be helping manufacturers to hone the flavours and fragrances of their foods, drinks, cosmetics and household goods.

As the other candidates and I are ushered into the test room, lab assistants flit around in white coats and hairnets, carrying trays of tiny plastic cups. It’s a precise operation: each cup has a number written on it, and the trays are placed on tables numbered one to five.

We take our seats at the tables and one of the assistants explains how the test will work: we each have a form listing a series of tasks, each of which involves describing or comparing samples by either tasting or smelling. We circulate around the tables, sipping from little cups, sniffing little bottles and filling in our answers – not forgetting to ‘clean our palates’ with water after each task.

On your marks, go. Despite still having the taste in my mouth of the large cup of coffee I have just finished, I’m quietly confident that I’m going to be good at this. After all, I’m quite picky about chocolate, I can tell Diet Coke from proper Coke at 100 paces, and I’m the only person in my office who can even hear the high pitched beep of a phone off the hook (not that any of the tasks involve sound).

The first challenge looks straightforward enough – describe what the little water samples are flavoured with. Easy: sugar, salt, lemon… but it quickly gets tougher. There’s an unpleasant bitter flavour that I can’t quite put my finger on, and another one that completely stumps me. Repeatedly I have that frustrating feeling of knowing a smell is familiar, but not knowing what it is – like when you think you remember a dream but find it evaporates as soon as you try to describe it to someone. Still, I try and write an answer in every box on the form, even if it’s just: “Something nasty”.

As the test goes on, my descriptions of the flavours and fragrances get vaguer and more flowery, and by the final task I’ve begun to worry whether ‘vegetabley’ is spelt with or without an e. Even the water that we’re supposed to use to rinse our mouths starts to taste like whatever sample I last tried, and I wonder whether they’ve sneakily flavoured it, to try and trick me.

When the test is over I’m taken aside by Christine to find out how I performed. At first she looks impressed. When asked to rank solutions in order of strength I got them mostly right, and I win praise for identifying monosodium glutamate by name. But it turns out I don’t know the difference between bitter and sour (the fact they are even two different things is news to me) and the flavour I identified as ‘vegetabley’ was nothing of the sort – it was the metallic taste of ferrous oxide (rusted iron). Most disappointingly of all, I failed to distinguish Diet Coke from regular.

In the end I score 24 out of 45 – well short of the 30 needed to pass the test and be considered for employment. My new career as a taster has stalled before it even began, and it’s with a hint of jealousy that I ask how those who were more successful than me will be helping MMR support its clients.

The panel of tasters is just one piece of the puzzle, explains David Howlett, the firm’s strategic planning director. They come up with as pure a reading as possible of how the flavour or fragrance is perceived, setting the stage for further research to pick apart what this means in the context of brands, products and life (Howlett is fond of the word ‘conceptualisation’ to describe how we turn sensory experiences into ideas and feelings). The agency also develops models to predict how tweaking a product’s appearance, taste or smell will affect how people feel about it.

The key to it all, says managing director Mat Lintern, is coming up with a sensory experience that reinforces your brand. If the flavour or fragrance doesn’t fit, consumers will sense the dissonance (even if they can’t articulate it) and be less likely to buy. Simply trying to make products ‘that everybody likes’ is not the route to commercial success.

Howlett gives the example of Red Bull – not a product designed to please all the people all the time, but crucially its flavour ‘fits the brand’: it’s edgy, it’s adult, it’s even a bit medicinal.

Dark chocolate is another case in point. MMR did some research looking separately at reactions to dark chocolate brands and to the chocolate itself in blind taste tests. This allowed them to see whether the product was living up to what the brand seemed to promise.

“What we found is that market success seemed to bear little relation to the traditional measure of ‘liking’ in some cases, but it was clear that chocolates that delivered the brand promise were more successful commercially,” said Howlett. “So well-liked chocolates could be unsuccessful, while poorly-liked chocolates can perform extremely well by virtue of the fact that they communicated their brand values appropriately.”

Having turned me down for the job, MMR drive me back to the train station where I drown my sorrows in regular Coke. I don’t care what anyone says, it tastes better to me.