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‘We’re really democratizing taste.’ Inside Penn State’s taste tasting lab

You might not realize it, but most of what ends up on your plate every day was developed from rigorously controlled taste testing studies — maybe even at Penn State.

Led by director John Hayes and his team of undergraduates, the Sensory Evaluation Center in the Penn State Department of Food Science assists brands — both large, national corporations and regional, Pennsylvania-based producers — get better food products on the shelves.

“Some of these food companies are local, smaller, mom-and-pop companies that don’t have a facility like ours and so just don’t have the capacity (to do their own testing),” Hayes said. “But we also work for nationwide companies that (have) just outsourced (testing), or because they want access to the kind of participants we can get here in State College.”

The taste tests occur in a controlled environment and neutral setting, to minimize taster bias as much as possible.

“We’re giving food companies what’s seen as more basic or objective feedback on how an exact product tastes, if people like product A better than product B,” Hayes said.

The Rodney A. Erickson Food Science building is home to the Berkey Creamery as well as Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center. Abby Drey

But don’t think this type of research is just as easy as giving a randomly picked tester two samples of the same food, asking them to record their opinion and then sending them on their way. To gather accurate data, a lot of care must be taken to avoid anything that might influence a tester’s perspective of a product.

“We have to minimize any variabilities so any differences we see are due to the actual product formulation and not due to how we prepared it,” Hayes said.

If it’s two different soft drinks, for example, Hayes and the students can’t just pour 100 samples of one product and 100 samples of another, because the second sample will then be less flat than the first sample.

“What we’ll actually do is we’ll have two people stand side by side pouring at the same rate so we can guarantee that all of Product A is no less flat than all of Product B,” Hayes said.

If it’s scrambled eggs, two people stir the eggs at the same time, with a metronome playing in the background so they’re stirring at the same rate, Hayes said. Another student will use a stopwatch to make sure the eggs are cooked for the same time.

“Then there will be even two more students who, when those eggs are done, they’re putting them into individual bowls with lids so the samples don’t dry out in the five minutes it takes us to go from the lab bench to the taste-test booth,” Hayes said.

While all this precaution occurs behind the scenes, meanwhile, a tester sits in an isolated taste-test booth with controlled lighting. The item to be tested is delivered via a tray pushed through a serving hatch (testers have minimal interaction with the research staff, to further minimize bias) and then testers receive their instructions on a computer screen.

Kate Mobley shows how researches place food items to tasters in the Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center on Nov. 1. Abby Drey

Sometimes testers only try two products, sometimes they try more. They might be asked to rate products or answer questions on a product’s qualities, such as sweetness or saltiness. The information gathered depends on the individual study, as do the testers themselves.

Generally, just over 100 testers participate in a single study and participants are chosen from the center’s pool of about 1,200 people who are emailed and asked to fill out a screening questionnaire. The screening verifies that the testers are either product category consumers or what Hayes calls “product category acceptors,” or those that would be accepting of a product even if they don’t normally use or eat it.

This method of testing food products differs highly from the way food products were approved for going to market even just a few decades ago.

“We really try to move away from the traditional ‘golden tongue model’ of taste testing, this idea that there’s one expert that has some kind of platonic ideal of what a food product should be. We’re really democratizing taste,” said Hayes, noting that, in years past, a single person in a company might decide if a product launched based all on whether or not they personally liked the product. “We’re moving away from that. ... We’re trying to make a product that the most number of consumers will find appealing.”

Visiting doctoral student and chocolate maker Alan McClure prepares for chocolate for a study in the Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center on Nov. 1. Abby Drey

In many cases, though, the center’s most important work isn’t in helping a company discover that the public loves their product and they should move forward with putting it on shelves; instead, it’s in helping a company avoid catastrophe by releasing an unsuccessful product.

Hayes recounts one test the center conducted on a filled pasta product. People liked the idea of the concept, but it didn’t taste very good.

“If the company had launched that, it could’ve been really disastrous. They could’ve launched this new product, spent all the money on new packaging to get this into stores and then sales would’ve slumped,” Hayes said. “Instead, by spending some money with us up front, we can give them the feedback that says they need to go back to the drawing board and rethink it.”

Of course, the Sensory Evaluation Center couldn’t do the work it does without its pool of testers. To join the pool, readers can sign up for consideration in upcoming taste tests on the center’s website, at

Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at