U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Natick, MA 01760-5012
Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
Date: July 10, 2001
Psychologists evaluate taste
Natick, Mass. --- With military rations, good taste counts. That may be surprising considering that if you asked average people what they thought of military rations, they would probably lump them together with airline and hospital food, said Dr. Armand Cardello, senior research psychologist with the Product Optimization and Evaluation Team at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (Natick).
His team collects and analyzes consumer taste-testing data for almost every newly developed or reworked ration item prepared by the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program, also located at Natick. While food scientists create foods from new recipes or revamp existing ones ensuring that they meet technical standards, the product evaluation team concentrates on how the food will be received by those who will have to consume it.
"As a group of psychologists, we're concerned not just with the sensory aspects of food but also with the psychological effects of foods," Cardello said. "Our research often deals with the expectations and stereotypes of foods. It's day-to-day, incremental contributions to improve the quality of food the soldier eats."
Sensory evaluation as a field of study began after World War II at the Chicago Quartermaster Food and Container Institute. Researchers learned that food that met nutritional specifications was being rejected by soldiers, which led to the psychological approach to evaluating food items. The sensory analysis program moved to the Soldier Systems Center in 1966.
"The food was inadequate, and they needed to develop good-tasting rations," Cardello said. "They really founded the field of sensory evaluation and caused it to evolve into a scientific approach to the evaluation of foods as opposed to the reliance on experts."
Food scientists at the Combat Feeding Program begin the weed out process by tasting new recipes through "benchtop testing." It's a quick process where they turn out a high volume of products. Once they find one with potential, it moves to trained panels.
Trained panelists are people with no necessary food science background who are educated in the vocabulary of food taste and texture. They compare and describe different formulations and give that information to the product developer.
"We don't want the same people who are developing the product to rate it. By being organizationally distinct, we preserve our integrity," Cardello said.
Once a food has been selected, the next step is technical panel testing. People who have technical expertise in the product are necessary because they know what qualities to look for in a product, such as gumminess or rancidity. Since military rations have to meet specific shelf life requirements, technical panelists serve well on food storage studies.
"Someone trained may be able to pick up differences in the cohesiveness of two foods, but the consumer may still like them equally well. We need to make sure that any differences we find don't affect the consumer," Cardello said.
Technical panelists also help determine a standard of identity in appearance, flavor and texture after a contract has been awarded to food manufacturers. These qualities don't involve how good or bad a food tastes, but serve to ensure that the delivered product is the desired product.
Cardello said many industries still rely on the "golden palates" of expert taste testers to judge a food or beverage, but Natick uses a pool of nearly 300 untrained volunteers to participate in taste tests.
"The ultimate arbiter is the consumer. He or she is the ultimate standard," he said. "If experts say something is good quality, but the consumers don't like it, it means nothing."
Almost daily, the Sensory and Consumer Testing Laboratory randomly calls volunteers to conduct taste tests with several food samples. Volunteers enter their personal identification code and then rate each food on a computer.
They use the hedonic scale to express how much they like or dislike an item with a range of one through nine. The scale was an achievement in the program's early days and is used internationally for a variety of purposes. Volunteers also have a space to type in comments.
When a food passes this test, it's sent to soldiers participating in field exercises for a final assessment.
"Here in the laboratory, people are tasting small portions," Cardello said. "We always need to use a field evaluation to test it away from a sterile lab environment. For instance, a cherry drink that tastes fine when a few ounces are consumed may be too intense as a full serving."
Besides hedonic scales, the team uses several other research methodologies to study food acceptance. Research psychologists use statistical analysis from data collected from trained and consumer panelists to determine what sensory characteristics, say sponginess in a cake, are well-liked. Descriptive analytic techniques are used to name food qualities and identify them in products.
Difference testing is used to see if the consumer can pick from a group of samples the different formulation, and lab-based meal consumption studies are a way to study the perception of the fillingness of foods.
"In a dining situation, volunteers may eat a portion of food and state how hungry or full they are over an hour or two," Cardello said. "In this way, we can track the satiety value of the food."
Surveys and interviews give researchers insight into what soldiers prefer, such as more ethnic foods, or find out potential problems with new items.
Researchers may soon implement a new method of rating the liking of foods that uses a range of minus 100 to plus 100. The new scale better discriminates how foods taste and also quantifies the level of liking between various foods, both impossible with the hedonic scale, said Cardello.
The laboratory is available to small or large companies for sensory testing. Years ago, the Department of Commerce National Marine Fisheries Service contracted their services.
The agency couldn't convince people to buy underused fish such as goosefish, also known as monkfish or angler fish, and wanted to inform people how those fish tasted and how they compared to more recognizable species.
"We recommended that they use a perceptual map that shows the flavors and textures of similar fish to say that goosefish, for example, tastes more like cod than bluefish," Cardello said.
Still, the main mission is striving to meet taste preferences for servicemembers, even for the pickiest of eaters.
Volunteers used for testing
"We randomly call people from a list of about 300, but we'd love to have more people," said Dr. Armand Cardello, senior research psychologist with the Product Optimization and Evaluation Team at Natick. "Sometimes we run focus groups. Sometimes it's just a survey, such as asking what they think of irradiated or pulsed-electric field processed foods. Other times they will taste a variety of foods and beverages."
Interested taste-testers can register in Room D132 by filling out a questionnaire including information about demographics, food allergies, food preferences, eating habits and regions of the country where they have resided.
Then they sign a consent form. For testing of irradiated foods, panelists are asked to sign a separate consent form. Panelists can choose to not eat any product they don't want to.
Demonstrated ability in odor and taste perception is not required, but employees should seek their supervisor's permission before volunteering.
Panelists are called according to a computer-generated random list to go to Room D132 when the foods are ready, typically mid-morning and early afternoon, for sessions that last an average of 10-20 minutes. Special tests may require more time. Participants do not need to attend a session if they have a schedule conflict or other priorities.
All foods tested must first pass strict microbiological and chemical tests of safety before they are served to panelists.
Natick is part of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM). For more information about SBCCOM or the Soldier Systems Center (Natick), please visit our website at http://www.sbccom.army.mil.