A few weeks ago, Steve at Sobeys contacted me with probably the coolest offer I’ve ever gotten, and may ever get, at this small potatoes blog. He invited me to a look into the world of Sobeys taste testing at a “sensory workshop.” Despite the early 9am start time (requiring a 7:30 departure from Canmore) and the suggestion that coffee be avoided that morning for optimal taste bud operation I eagerly replied with a hearty “I’ll be there…and can my husband come too?”
The session was held at a hotel near the north side of Calgary, and a few of us had gathered to take part on that day, lead by the surprisingly chipper at that time of day John Hale. He’s an experienced Sensory Professional with many years put into taste testing and food science. He moved from England a few years ago to work with Sobeys to establish their testing facility and is currently their Directory of Consumer Care and Sensory. This role enables him to taste up to 3000 products a year using his panel of trained tasters. They work on tasting numerous products, from chili peppers to lemons and chocolate chip cookies. Sounds crazy, right?
John first walked us through the basics of tasting, and our abilities to taste things like sweet, sour, bitter and salt, in addition to the lesser thought of like fatty, umami and metallic. It was part science class, part comedy routine to be honest. John’s a great presenter, and is obviously very knowledgeable in the area.
Then we got down to business. After being asked not to drink coffee, wear strong scented products, lip balms or lipsticks that morning, we underwent our “supertaster screening.” It was basically a series of mini tests that ranked your ability to detect different flavours, recognize different scents, distinguish colours and describe products. You are scored out of a potential 175 points (“No one has ever scored that,” said John.) People who get 140 or higher could be asked to join the panel.
The first test was a sampling of six different liquids. They were one of the basic tastes – sour, sweet, salty or bitter … or just plain water. It’s a bit harder than you think, as they were solutions with quite a faint flavour. I mistook plain water for bitter – oops!
The next portion of the “exam” was smell. As the sense of smell plays such a strong role in taste, it’s important to have a good grasp of it. 10 bottles held 10 different scents, from the extremely easy and recognizable “vanilla” (or as another attendee at another workshop said: “my ex-girlfriend”) to the challenging…at least to some. I was completely stumped when it came to cinnamon, and only wrote down “BBQ smoke or meat” when it came to the distinctly meaty smelling instant beef noodle soup stock. One of the attendees got it right away. “I eat a lot of instant noodles,” he said sheepishly.
This scent test is quite important, as most of our ability to taste comes from smell – a whopping 85%!
And then the horrible triangulation test! We were given three glasses with some more clear solution in it, this time of lime. But the twist was that each glass had a slightly different concentration and formulation, so you had to taste them quickly, then pick the “odd one out.” John encouraged us to “go with our gut” and pick the one that jumped out the fastest. I felt pretty confident as I wrote down the number of the glass I felt was most unusual. Too bad I was wrong each time. This test in particular was to see if the potential taster has a powerful ability to pick up on citric acid, so the glass with the most acidic taste would jump out at them. It’s a sort of discrimination test, and it is one of the most important skills of a professional taster.
Finally we did a colour blindness test, and then wrote a short descriptive paragraph on our favourite food, so as to judge our ability to describe foods. That’s a pretty important part of being on a tasting panel. Your tongue is no good to market research if you can’t describe how those potato chips taste different than these ones.
After being marked (two of us would have been cut from panel, one would have made the regular panel and two others would have been on the super taster panel) we did a few other panel style exercises like describing an apple “Work from appearance through aroma, flavour and texture” was John’s suggestion and sampling soft vs. hard candy to taste flavour differences. We got some free swag in the form of some great new Italian sodas Sobeys has out (the grapefruit is really great with gin, just as they promised!). Considering the percentages are about 65% of Canadians being average tasters, 30% zero tasters and 5% supertasters, our group did pretty well.
Sobeys panels stretch from coast to coast…except for the prairies. The 80-some tasters range in age from their 20s to their 70s, and once they pass their initial screening, they attend a sort of tongue boot camp, where they learn to taste efficiently as well as describe products and tastes clearly. They attend a 12 person, three hour panel every few weeks run by John, mostly in Mississauga, where they may sample any kind of product on a given day, from a soda to yogurt or even something like limes.
While the gig is a paid one, it would not necessarily pay the bills, as you cannot work as a taster for a traditional 8 hour day. Still, the opinions of the panel are highly valued by Sobeys, and can shape a product dramatically. John gave an example where the Compliments house brand chocolate chip cookies were sampled and determined to be “too chocolatey.” So Sobeys cut the amount of chocolate in the cookies, the new product was shipped to stores…and customers agreed with the new product. Sales went up, and so did glowing reviews on the cookies.
John assured us that every product you take the time to complain about to the team at Sobeys is retested as some point, to find out how to make it perfect. Of the products the panels tastes, 80% will make it to store shelves. The other 20% will likely undergo more testing.
And Mr. Hale’s #1 tip for increasing your taste sensitivity? Avoid capsicum pepper! That means avoiding spicy foods as they can kill off tastebuds, and they take about two weeks to regenerate. You should also probably give up smoking, and avoid brushing your teeth and drinking caffeine within an hour of your meal.
Thanks for the super interesting morning, Sobeys. It was a pleasure!
If you are interested in learning if you are a super taster, you could always try this experiment at home. You’ll probably need a person to count and help you, though.