CORVALLIS - Chinese noodles should glide through the lips with a satisfying slurp. Orange juice should taste sweet at first, then slightly tart. A swallow of beer should carry a tiny nip of bitter, not a puckering bite.
A matter of opinion, you say?
The experts at Oregon State University's Sensory Science Laboratory might reply resoundingly "Yes, it is - consumer opinion."
For more than 40 years, researchers at the Sensory Science Lab in OSU's Department of Food Sciences and Technology have devised ways to translate matters of individual taste into usable, measurable data. Recent research projects have identified the best qualities for orange juice, green beans, hand lotion, after-dinner teas and fruit-flavored rum, to name a few.
Such testing provides manufacturers with answers to an all-important business question: "What does the public really want?"
"If a company is going to create a winner, it has to have a product idea that satisfies (customers') wants and needs and meets their taste expectations," said David Lundahl, an OSU food science and technology professor.
The food industry also benefits from Sensory Lab testing, said Mina McDaniel, who has headed the lab since 1983.
For example, one upcoming research project may help food processors solve a long-time dilemma - how to neutralize the sour taste of acids added to preserve salad dressings and other such products.
"We are planning to see which sweeteners and salts work best on which acids," McDaniel said. "And then we'll go to the manufacturers to propose additional research."
Manufacturers historically have been glad to fund specific research targeted at a specific industry problem. The demand for such information far exceeds the supply of accessible testing laboratories, McDaniel said - especially ones available to help smaller food manufacturers.
Oregon State is one of about eight universities nationwide that offer training to sensory science professions and sensory testing for both public and private interests.
Other sensory lab locations include the University of California at Davis, the University of Nebraska, Kansas State University and a large program at Cornell University in New York. "OSU definitely is a pioneer in the field and has one of the largest graduate programs," Lundahl said.
Program graduates such as Lue-Lih Yeh, a native of Taiwan, usually have their pick of job offers after graduation. Yeh mulled several overseas offers before accepting a job with a New Jersey-based food company. Its executives were impressed with her thesis project, the development of a culturally neutral scale for measuring taste preferences of both Western and Asian consumers.
Yeh demonstrated in the first half of her project that Asian respondents felt more comfortable reporting their reactions - good or bad - with numbers instead of nine rankings along the standard Hedonic scale, which range from "extremely dislike" to "extremely like."
When using the numeric scale developed by Yeh, the Asian students freely indicated they didn't usually enjoy snacks that tasted of sharp cheddar cheese or tart raspberries.
A three-year project into what makes the perfect Asian noodle gave Oregon wheat farmers clear direction on what type of wheat can secure a share of the lucrative Asian noodle market.
McDaniel, who directed the noodle project, said wheat growers discovered that Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean noodle consumers had slightly different preferences regarding noodle flavors and seasonings. But all seemed to prefer a creamy-white, non-gummy noodle that slithered smoothly from bowl to chopsticks to mouth, all with just the right touch of firmness to the bite.
With up to 25 varieties of Oregon wheat to choose from, growers could tailor their planting decisions knowing which types of wheat were likely to produce the ideal noodle.
"The bottom line for the grower is whether that variety will consistently perform well," said Mark Kruk, laboratory manager for the Oregon Wheat Marketing Center. "OSU filled a void (by determining) what it is about a noodle that is acceptable or unacceptable."
Last month, the capabilities of the sensory lab expanded with the opening of a second, state-of-the-art laboratory for testing research and help to food processors. Located in offices at the new $9.4 million Food Innovation Center near Union Station in downtown Portland, the new lab will continue its alchemy of translating personal preference into marketing information.
The recently released spring issue of Oregon's Agricultural Progress magazine, published by the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, has an article, titled "A Matter of Taste," about the work of OSU's Sensory Science Laboratory.
The magazine is free of charge. For a copy write: Extension and Experiment Station Communications, OSU, 422 Kerr Administration Building, Corvallis, OR 97331-2119. The magazine is on the WWW at http://eesc.orst.edu.