by Disha Gandhi
Warning: the following article requires active participation. Please have 1-2 pieces of gum at your side prior to reading.
The multibillion-dollar food industry provides us with all of the calories and food products we desire. But who within the food industry conceptualizes the vast variety of foods available? Who develops the recipes, evaluates consumer response, and assesses the quality? Food scientists, that’s who.
Prior to working as a food sensory scientist at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, I completed my undergraduate degree in Food Science at the University of Illinois. In fact, most graduates within my program went on to work throughout the food industry. But when we learn about optimal nutrition at the Friedman School, the food industry, creating products for profit, is often positioned as at odds with a healthy diet.
We learn about reducing sodium intake, avoiding processed foods, and returning to the way our grandparents ate. It may seem like food scientists are the monsters that invented and feed the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Though we can argue that this notion seems pretty reasonable, food scientists and their industries do exist and we need them for many reasons.
Believe it or not, the guy who invented gum, William Wrigley Jr., was a food scientist back in 1891. Without his invention the person pushed up against you on a very crowded train would probably have very nasty breath. So in honor of Wrigley, let’s have some fun! Grab those pieces of gum and work through the following:
In answering these four simple questions, base your responses on the following 9-point hedonic scale test:
2-Dislike Very Much
5-Neither Like nor Dislike
8-Like Very Much
Question #1. On a scale of 1-9, please evaluate the overall liking of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Question #2: On a scale of 1-9, please evaluate the overall liking of the flavor of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Question #3: On a scale of 1-9, please evaluate the overall liking of the texture of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Question #4: Continue chewing the gum for roughly five minutes. Please evaluate the overall liking of the flavor intensity of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Congratulations! You just completed a mini consumer sensory test questionnaire. During my year at Wrigley, my group conducted a number of consumer tests on various Wrigley and Mars products such as Orbit Gum, 5 Gum, Skittles, Starbursts, Snickers Ice Cream Bars, Uncle Ben’s Rice Products, amongst others. We evaluated consumers’ preferences on different scales similar to the one you just completed. Thereafter, we delivered the results to Wrigley’s head sensory scientists who were better able to make decisions regarding their formulations, eventually deciding whether or not the tested product should be released into the market.
Now that you’re aware of how sensory testing occurs, here’s some insight into what I did as a food scientist:
What was a really cool product I worked on?
I definitely have to say that it would be Dove chocolate-covered gum. I had never thought that gum could be covered in chocolate! Not only did the food scientists create gum with a chocolate coating around it, they also created raspberry, chai, and strawberry coated gum. Some formulations tasted very well, while some were vomit-inducing. This product was released to select Dunkin Donuts around the Chicago area. I worked on this product in its early stages, so it might be a while before it gets released nationwide, if at all.
What was so great about this job?
When you work in research and development, you tend to know a lot of information about the projects that pertain to your team. I was lucky with my position because I was exposed to a whole variety of products that both Wrigley and Mars produced including products from around the world, such as Chinese jasmine flavored mints
My team did not only do consumer acceptance tests, we also did qualitative descriptive analysis. So how does this work?
First, here is a list of basic tastes, flavors, and textures:
Now, let’s go back to that piece of gum you were/are chewing. Or, if you have another piece handy then start chewing it.
Now ask yourself: after about 30 seconds of chewing the gum, what were the range of flavors you experienced and at what intensity would you rate these flavors on a scale of 0-15? 0 represents no flavor intensity and 15 represents a very high intensity. How about after a minute? What about 12 minutes?
Qualitative descriptive analysis is performed by panelists who evaluate the basic tastes, flavors, and textures each on a scale of 0-15. What was really interesting about these panelists is how they were equally calibrated regarding gum and candy. For instance, a sweetness rating of five represents the sweetness level of 50 grams of sugar in 1L of water. They were given this reference sample daily to ensure their internal calibration was set. Panelists then were able to evaluate the sweetness of a piece gum or candy by referring back to their reference sample. For your general knowledge, the sweetness of a piece of gum starts at an intensity of about 8-9 and as time progresses it lowers to about a 2. So, in the exercise earlier, if you rated the sweetness of your gum at about 8-9, you are already on your way to becoming an expert gum taster! Scientists looked for consistency in the panelists’ ratings of each flavor attribute in order for them to discern the flavor profile of their product. This knowledge helped them decide for example, if a different type of sweetener in Orbit Spearmint Gum made a difference when compared to the control product.
Valuable exposure to sensory science, working with a variety of people, and now knowing almost everything there is to know about gum (except how it’s formulated) made working for Wrigley a wonderful learning experience.
Though Disha Gandhi thinks that sensory science is neat and vital for a company’s well being, her heart lies in food and nutrition. Hence, why she’s studying towards a MSc in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition at the Friedman School. In her free time she loves to read food blogs and explore restaurants in Boston.