Food Science, It Is All About Perception

In the newly remodeled culinary kitchen at Mount Mary University, silver Kitchenaid mixers bling against the newly added ceiling lights. It is a large room with high ceilings; a large flat screen television hangs from the ceiling. Charcoal black countertops are engraved with diamond-shaped details that hold rows of gallons of milk, salt, measuring devices and rennet. The new stainless steel, dual fuel range gas stoves blast the steam of hot milk.

The test kitchen is used for dietetic and food science students. It is a safe place for students to learn how to cook, bake, steam and present their artistic and delicious recipes they have created for many purposes, either to understand its nutritional value or how to make substitutions for those who have food allergies.

“For the community, it makes for a better food, texture, a better taste, and product,” said Dr. Anne Vavrick, professor of food science.  

The purpose of a taste test is for food companies like Kraft (mac-n-cheese) or Pepsi to better understand consumers and how they perceive food. When food companies understand their consumers better, they can create a better product that meets the consumers’ acquired taste buds.

On October 6, the students scuffle together plastic soufflé cups and miniature spoons on multiple trays to get ready for taste testers. Taste tests have become a common activity for the food science program as a way to show students the importance of how people perceive food. They prepare themselves, just like any other food company, for a group of individuals to taste a newly created food.

Today, it is mozzarella cheese. There were four different types of cheese to sample. Two kinds of cheese were high-fat; however, one of the high-fat cheeses contained less amount of salt. This taste test determined the role of fat in salty foods.

“Students are learning how their scientific inquiries manifest themselves in a taste, every time they change a recipe, whether to increase its nutritional value or shelf life, they can taste it right away to make sure that it’s what they expected,” Dr. Vavrick said.   

This is important because it gives students real-life experience that later prepares them to work in a laboratory of a food company.
People started to show up in clusters outside the taste testing room, anxiously waiting to eat the freshly made cheeses. There is a private door and an electronic badge is needed in order to get in.

The room looks professional. There are sub-cubicles lined up in a row leaving people to private moments and critical thinking. There were also red lights above each person. These red lights helped to confuse the color of the food that people were sampling. color can trick your mind to think that the food you eat will taste a certain way. According to Dr. Vavrick, there is a chemical process when tasting foods. When you taste a food, your tongue detects chemicals that produce one or multiple of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Aroma is also a leading factor in flavor.  

This is called retronasal olfaction when odorant molecules travel through the mouth reaching the nose through the nasopharynx. Odorants (a substance giving off a smell) then bind to olfactory receptors, which sends signals to the brain.

“We all can taste those five tastes, but we don’t know how people actually taste the flavor. Vavrick said. “Taste testing helps us to tune in on a flavor that the majority of people like,” Vavrick said.

She continues to explain the psychological and physiological components that alter when a person is either in a different country or if they are dieting or sick that day. Our taste buds change due to these circumstances.

“ Your state of mind that day plays a role in flavor. If you’re eliminating sugar from your diet you are going to taste sweetness better than someone who is not, said Dr. Vavrick.

The testing room was quiet; you could hear a needle drop. People had their thinking faces on. Eyes are focused on the cheeses, and heads are tilted to figure out which cheese tastes best.

It seems the most delicious cheese according to the blind taste testers, where can taste saltiness better with a high-fat cheese. Usually, in food science, it is a known theory that salt can hide better in a high-fat food, interesting!

“The taste testing process was interesting,” said Cheryl Bailey, dean of the natural science department. “Even though it is food which we are very familiar with, you all of a sudden feel like you are in a science lab.”

Not only were their instructors tasting the cheeses, there were multiple students that came as well.

Serena Shyu, a freshman and food science major at Mount Mary University,  participated in the mozzarella taste test. “It was fun, I enjoyed seeing the sensory area and the cheese was really good too,” Serena said. “Some were a little weird, for example, some were really salty and some were not salty, but there was that one cheese that was super good, it may have been the ugliest cheese, but it was still the best. I would definitely participate in the taste test again!”

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