OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Taste Test Volunteers Help Explore What We Like to Eat and Why

08/22/2007

PORTLAND, Ore. – Wake up, taste buds! The Food Innovation Center is looking for taste testers.

We've all taken taste tests in the grocery store or at the farmers' market. We are asked, for example, to taste two kinds of peaches and offer our opinions. What happens with all those opinions?

"That's my job," explained Ann Colonna, a sensory scientist at Oregon State University. Colonna works at the Food Innovation Center in Portland, and her job is to design quantitative consumer testing and sensory research. Taste tests.

For as many as 20 clients a year, and testing everything from tea to ice cream sandwiches, Colonna designs quantitative tests that involve the opinions of hundreds of people.

"People love to give their opinions," Colonna smiles. "People will line up at the farmers' market to try these products and take a five-minute taste test to state their preferences."

But sometimes it is hard to get people to come into the Food Innovation Center for taste tests, so Colonna is developing a list of volunteers for consumer testing and offering a minimum of $20 cash for tasters who come to the center for scheduled tests.

"Portland is a great place for testing new food products," said Michael Morrissey, the director of the collaborative research center located in Portland's Pearl District and shared by OSU and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "There's a large population here representing many different groups with varied tastes; it's a gathering place for alternative food systems and people who pay attention to the food they eat."

Colonna has tested everything from baby food to wine, designing tests to help food producers adjust their products to meet real consumer demands.

Right now Colonna is testing peaches for the Washington State Fruit Commission. Her results will help Northwest peach growers understand what consumers like, or don't like, in peaches. She offers each taster a slice of a Northwest peach and a slice of a peach from elsewhere, then she asks the tasters to answer questions on a touch screen computer. She will analyze the responses and interpret trends to help the peach growers refine their market strategy.

Colonna works closely with food companies to identify their target customers and to design scientific surveys that unravel the mysteries of consumer tastes and preferences.

"Companies can't run their own tests if they want unbiased results," Colonna explained. "Most companies want scientifically valid consumer information, and they want it on industry time, which means: right now."

Recently, the Pear Bureau Northwest came to Colonna to gauge consumer response to a new variety of Chinese fragrant pear from Asia.

"They wanted information and a strategy in place when and if the Chinese-grown pears hit North American markets," she said. "We conducted taste tests targeting a specific consumer market and provided the pear industry with a detailed profile of consumer preferences."

And?

"A significant number of consumers prefer some Northwest pear varieties to the Chinese fragrant pear," she said. She offered no more details. Results of Colonna's consumer testing are shared only with her client companies.

"The food business is highly competitive, and consumer demands are always changing," she said. She takes the pulse of those changes with her sensory research and consumer testing to help food businesses succeed in the marketplace.

Next month at the Food Innovation Center, she will be testing salmon products in collaboration with Oregon Sea Grant. She is looking for consumers for the taste tests on Sept. 18 and 19.

To become a consumer testing participant at the Food Innovation Center, or for more information about sensory research, see: http://fic.oregonstate.edu or email consumer.info@oregonstate.edu.