Human tendency is to trust eyes over smell.

A Matter of Taste

When did you last see clear cola or white chocolate pudding in the grocery store? Been awhile? There’s a reason for that – consumers don’t like them. It’s not that the products don’t taste good. It’s simply that they’re the wrong color. Add a little caramel or brown coloring and everything changes.

“Clear soda is supposed to be lime and lemon. Caramel color is essential for colas. Human tendency is to trust eyes over smell. If you have something lime flavored but color it red, most people will call it cherry. That’s why clear colas always fail,” said Jeannine Delwiche, an Ohio State University food science assistant professor.

Delwiche is head of Ohio State’s Sensory Science Group, which helps businesses market new or improved products by figuring out what consumers like and dislike. That involves using psychology and food science to evaluate people’s perception of the taste, texture, smell and appearance of food.

Sensory science dates back to World War II when U.S. officials couldn’t figure out why soldiers weren’t eating, Delwiche said. The reason was simple – the K rations lacked flavor. Experts then started taking a psychological approach to evaluate food.

Interest in sensory science has grown over the last few years with the growth of prepackaged foods. Food processing is now a $500 billion industry in the United States, according to the National Food Processors Association.

The food industry is trying to keep up with the demands of consumers who increasingly want their food to be tastier, more nutritious, cheaper and more exotic. Food manufacturers and restaurants also are tinkering with their products in an attempt to eliminate or reduce trans fats. All food labels have to list trans fats, which have been shown in studies to raise the LDL cholesterol that increases the risk for heart disease. Kraft Foods Inc. has been reformulating many of its snack products, and last year the company introduced three trans fat free varieties of its nearly 100 year old Oreo cookie brand.

General Mills also changed the recipe of some of its cereals such as Trix, Golden Grahams and Lucky Charms so they would have more whole grains, which research shows can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But before releasing the new cereals, the company did extensive nationwide taste testing with more than 9,000 people. Results showed taste testers liked the new whole grain cereals just as much or better than the previous cereal recipes.

“You never know how your customer will react. It’s a very important part of what we do on a daily basis – gauge the reaction of customers,” said Dan Charna, vice president of operations for Glory Foods, a Columbus, Ohio-based food company started in 1990.

Glory Foods, whose seasoned Southern-style canned and frozen foods are sold in more than 14,000 retail chains nationwide, turned to the Sensory Science Group in the mid-1990s when it altered the flavor of its best-selling canned collard greens. The goal was to see if consumers noticed a difference, Charna said. The company also did taste testings in three U.S. cities this year of its collard greens, which were altered to have less sodium and more natural flavors.

“More and more research is being done (on food),” he said. “It’s costly bringing something to market. You don’t want to have a mistake.”

Delwiche said demand is high for sensory scientists today and noted many large food companies have their own sensory scientists and food research labs.

“Our graduates never have trouble finding jobs,” she laughed.

Founded in 2000, OSU’s Sensory Science Group has tested everything from whether the texture of ham changes after being frozen to whether food packaging alters the crunchiness of chips. Many of the taste testers are hungry students who are more than willing to nibble on cheese puffs, ice cream cones or Swiss cheese. The taste testers sit in sterile sensory booths in a small lab and record their findings on a computer. The sensory scientists later analyze the results. Having a uniform environment and product are important during the testing, said Rachel Liggett, program coordinator for the Sensory Science Group, as she sorted through testing cups and threw out a dented one.

“Fast” fruit and salads

The fast-food industry also has been adapting to consumers’ healthier lifestyles by offering lower-fat products. Meal-sized salads, fruits and lower fat milk have popped up everywhere at fast food restaurants.

Wendy’s International Inc. knows all about the popularity of salads – the Dublin, Ohio-based company has been offering them since 1979 when it introduced salad bars in its restaurants. Convenience later became an issue because consumers did not have time to make their own salads. In 1992 Wendy’s rolled out its drive-through salads.

“Seventy percent of our business is through the pick-up window. Customers were looking for portable salads to take on the go,” said Bob Bertini, a Wendy’s spokesman.

As large salads caught on with consumers seeking healthier food options, Wendy’s soon found itself losing customers to delis, casual restaurants and supermarkets that featured chopped lettuce and other greens sold in bags, some flushed with nitrogen to keep the produce fresher. Once again, the company had to adjust its salads and make them more exotic to compete with other restaurants and supermarkets. In 2002 Wendy’s re-introduced its Garden Sensations salads, which feature items such as mandarin oranges and roasted almonds not commonly found in the popular bagged grocery store lettuces. Wendy’s switched to grape tomatoes because consumers preferred the taste, and it was more convenient in making the salads. Each day Wendy’s uses more than 28 acres of lettuce and 2.5 million pounds of tomatoes and onions, Bertini said.

Buurma Farms, Inc. in Willard knows how important it is to have a fresh product. The farm, founded in 1896 by Dutch immigrants, ships more than 1.5 million cases of produce nationwide under the Holland Brand name each year.

Throughout the harvesting and packaging, the company uses the latest water purification methods and food safety procedures to give the crop a longer shelf life and make it safer for consumers. Its ice plant produces 65 tons of ice per day to help keep the produce cool.

“That way the crop is all nice and fresh when the grocer opens it and puts it on the shelf,” said Bruce Buurma, the company’s treasurer.

Fresh fruit is also a popular item on restaurant menus now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends adults consume about two cups of fruit per day. McDonald’s Corp., which has a new fruit and walnut salad, is expected to buy 54 million pounds of apples per year.

An effective transportation network is a key to the freshness of Wendy’s salads and its new fruit bowl entrees of cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and grapes, Bertini said. The freshly cut lettuce, vegetables and fruit arrive in the food chain’s restaurants several times a week, and workers put together the salads and fruit bowls each day. Any leftover salads are thrown out at the end of the day, he said. Because the fruit at Wendy’s doesn’t have any preservatives or additives, its shelf life can be pretty short. The company sells about 1 million pounds of fruit a week, Bertini said.

Another change Wendy’s made to satisfy customers’ nutritional needs was to its milk. The company switched to lower-fat milk and started offering chocolate-flavored milk. Customers said the milk tasted better when plastic milk bottles replaced the hard-to-open cardboard boxes.

“People are open to more taste sensations … the onus is on us to keep innovating food,” Bertini said. 

Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards. 

Amy Graves 

Amy Graves is a communications specialist for Ohio Farm Bureau.