Controlling the variables
Unlike a marketing panel, sensory science test subjects are treated very clinically. Tasters’ reactions are meant to guide Rauen and her peers to concrete reasons for the food’s flavor profile, rather than be taken as one person’s opinion about whether a food is appealing.
“Sensory is not an inconsiderate science -- you have to take into account everyone around you, smells, tastes, all of that stuff. It isn’t just us throwing something at a consumer and saying ‘Here you go, try this,’” says Rauen.
To achieve this, her research area has a lot of high-tech measures to isolate the food from outside influence. The room is reinforced by positive air pressure, so that anything being cooked elsewhere in the lab won’t waft into someone’s nostrils via the tasting room’s A/C vents.
Tasters also follow strict rules to make sure they’re not sabotaging their own senses. Each person is limited in the number of items they can taste to ensure that their palette doesn’t get exhausted from flavors, and given breaks to let their taste buds reset. Especially aromatic items must be kept in the mouth for a certain number of seconds (or even a full minute) to maximize the role of scent in taste. Or other items might showcase tongue-centric flavors -- in which case the testers are asked to plug their noses while they eat.
The lights may even be turned to a certain color so that food appearance doesn’t affect how a person thinks it tastes. Even if the subjects know they’re only testing for flavor, the experiment has to account for this potential bias: “Unlike our children at home, who will scream bloody murder over what a product looks like, we as adults do it subconsciously,” she says.