Thursday, September 6, 2012

Taste Panelist Screening Test

Three Types of Rice
I've recently been screened as a food panelist. I didn't know what to expect. The test had a couple parts:

Clear liquids, cotton in vials, bits of food, strips of paper, and geometry section (no kidding)

The testing was in a corporate office type building. I signed in at reception, then waited in a conference room. They must have tested us in shifts, because my group was about 8 people. They gave us an quick orientation in the conference room, then took us back to the food lab.

Taste Lab:
The lab was shaped like a hallway with a counter along one side separated into personal cubicles. A tray was waiting for each person at their station. It had stacks of numbered plastic cups with lids (like dressing cups for take-out).

The cups had liquid, food, or paper. There was also a basket with about 20 sized vials stuffed with cotton. Plus a bottle of water, a packet of papers, and a (curiously) empty coffee cup with lid. They gave us another short orientation that cleared up the mystery of the empty cup...

Hint: Anytime they provide a “spit cup” - you will probably need it.

Clear Liquids:
The first portion of the test was about the clear liquids, they looked like plain water. The instructions were to put the entire portion in your mouth, and identify weather it was sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or plain water then write our answer in the packet. 

Honestly it was slightly disconcerting to put a slug of liquid in your mouth when you don't know what to expect. It made me realized how much expectation is related to enjoyment. For example: liquid is a soda bottle is always sweet or sweet & sour. How freaked out would you be if it was Chicken broth?! 

So yeah, being a taster looks like it involves some bravery.

Other Candidates:
Since the screening was for a paid position, a few candidates were definitely in a competitive mode - even though there were several openings. I could hear other testers prying open their cups and swishing away madly... The girl next to me was clearly trying to get a “head start” over me, but I reminding myself it's a test, not a race. I carefully checked the numbers on the cups versus the numbers on the paper, and methodically went through the clear liquids. The packet gave a suggested time limit - so I stuck with that.

I didn't hear anyone else using the spit cup, so I thought I would try to swallow all the solutions too. Since it seemed awkward to be the only one spitting... Usually I think of myself as fairly independent, but social convention sure does kick in when I'm in unfamiliar situations.

Nope! I totally had to use the spit cup, my brain argued with swallowing the bitter one...

Afterwards I realized I was probably the only super taster in the room - the other candidates probably didn't NEED the cup. Next time, I'm not going to hesitate - if there is a spit cup provided, it's got my name on it. I'm not going to worry about offending "speedy girl" in the next cube over.

The next section was the glass vials stuffed with cotton. The directions were to open a vial, and identify the smell and write it down, or at least a description. At this point I could hear the other candidates sighing and starting to lose their confidence which made me nervous. 

There were several scents that were similar: two mints, two citrus, two spice, etc. I realized how much I depend on packaging to give us a hint... I know I usually prefer the “green mint” vs. “blue mint” gum... but without the box it's MUCH harder to identify!

I did struggle with one scent, it smelled like “fruit flavored candy canes”. After thinking about it, I realized it wasn't tutti-frutti... it was artificial banana! I haven't had any banana flavored candy in years, so it was hard to pick out because it's SO different from a fresh real banana. One I realized it, though it became so clear I couldn't believe I didn't recognize it right away! I didn't need to worry though, I nailed this category. 

I got every scent right, even the tricky ones!

Descriptive Chewing
The next section of the test was descriptive. We had to eat a small bite of a food and write a description of the taste, texture, and sensation from chewing. This is probably the area where I lose points. I'm sure I left out some qualities. But that's exactly what the training is for!

Next was comparing two similar foods for texture. For example, which one is easier to chew. I've been reading this is one area food scientists must test with real people, because there is no machine that can tell the food scientists what the food “feels like” to a human. So they have to screen qualitative ability too. It was strangely specific to focus so hard on just how a food feels to chew or swallow without any consideration for taste. 

It's kind of funny to think that “crunchy vs. crispy” is someone's job.

Bitter Paper:
Close to the end was the slips of paper, this was a simple yes or no test. “Is this number bitter? yes or no.” One of them was somewhat bitter, but the last one was terrible! It was like a penny soaked in nail polish remover. It lingered and lingered... the bitterness lasted at least 5 minutes. I finally opened one of the cups from a previous test and ate another bite of the food to get the taste out of my mouth. It was bad enough I left a little note about how it lingered. I guess the job is not just nice flavors!

Math Test:
The very last portion was an even more strange paper test. It looked like a geometry test, and my stomach sank. I wished I had brushed up on some math... then I became incredulous:

A MATH test for food tasting?! 

It turns out it was a perception test so they can account for scale of perception. Basically you look at a shaded shape and mark on a line what proportion you think is shaded.The test judges the ability compare intensity. Basically this part of the test was to gauge if my brain can reasonably compare how “loud” one taste is compared to another. Very Clever.

Wrap Up:
Afterward I knocked on a window on back wall of the cubicle and an unseen person took my papers. Then there was a short personal interview. It seemed mostly aimed at determining reliability. Based on the questions, I'm guessing some odd balls are attracted to “getting paid to eat” so they have to screen for that too. Now I'm excited to have the training coming up too!

The best part was finding out I'm a Super Taster! 



  1. Wow! Thanks so much for your input. I'm actually going for a screening test tomorrow & have no idea what to expect. Although the thought of just tasting food may sound simple I'm still nervous. But I'm pretty much at ease now after reading your experience. Again thank you so much! :-)

    1. Glad I could help!!! When I went in I was so curious about what to expect, but I couldn't find anything on the web, glad this helps & good luck!

  2. Replies
    1. It was pretty interesting, and collaborative. My take-away was that the Scientist is using the panel as an analytical instrument - like an HPLC. The group results have to be calibrated and reproducible - it's complex.


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