Photo of
September 28, 2018

It is Wednesday morning and I have six plates of pasta and pesto in front of me.

I am greedy but, for once, gluttony is not why I am faced with the six bowls.

Instead, I am in the sensory analysis suite of the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation in Musselburgh.

Together with my fellow taste panellists, I'm here to give my opinion on six different but anonymous brands of green pesto.

After examining, smelling and tasting each sample, we evaluate it in terms of how much we liked or disliked its appearance, after taste, consistency and so on.

Each one of us is in our own little booth and we are not allowed to talk to one another. The room is white, air conditioned to avoid aromas and, apart from the clatter of the panellists' keyboards, it is quiet.

The lack of distractions is designed to produce a bias-free environment in which each taster focuses on the food in front of them. And it certainly does focus the mind.

After the first couple of mouthfuls of every meal, how many of us give it much more thought? These taste tests are rather different.

Is this pesto vinegary? Are these crunchy bits? Why is my pesto hairy? How much cheese is too much?

Once we have all finished our evaluations and fed our anonymous grades into the centre's computers, Lecturer Catriona Liddle, leads a group discussion about each sample.

Share opinions

A taste panel in the sensory analysis suite at The Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation.

A taste panel in the sensory analysis suite at The Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation.

As she points out, there are no right or wrong answers - just honest opinions. If my group is anything to go by, everybody is keen to share them.

The range of opinions is striking. This doesn't surprise Catriona.

'Everyone tastes differently and everyone will have a different capacity to taste ,' she says. 'Factors such as age change taste profiles. Some people are more susceptible to some tastes than others. For example, some people don't taste very bitter foods due to physiological reasons. Some people can't distinguish between bitter and sour. You saw today that we had a variety of opinions on something as basic as pesto.'

The centre has around 350 regular tasters and would like some more. The tasters are all adult ages and come from all walks of life. They don't need any prior experience. Many are regulars and they all receive a £10 Amazon or John Lewis voucher for their time and thoughts. The centre's only stipulation is that tasters are over eighteen and have no dietary restrictions.

The centre runs lots of these and similar taste tests each week. Some take fifteen to twenty minutes; others can last up to 45 minutes. The centre runs the tests for their own projects and those of external clients. Some are artisan producers working from their kitchens. Some are large manufacturers. Others are retail companies.

Preferences and behaviour differ

'Some are very small and are making stuff in their kitchen and want to upscale it,' explains Catriona. 'Others have a business already and are looking to expand or they have a challenge they can't fix. For example, they may need to reduce the amount of sugar they use or increase the shelf life of the product. And then we have very large producers or retailers coming in to compare products, benchmark products or they want to do some product development.'

The tests can throw interesting light on not just the products but also on how consumers act. Over a career that stretches much further back than her time at Queen Margaret, Catriona has seen some interesting results. It may not come as a surprise that people's stated preferences and actual buying behaviour may differ. Or be completely contradictory.

'People say they have a favoured brand but will often buy whichever brand is on offer at the time. Others have blind brand loyalty. They might say they always prefer and buy brand A over brand B but then always prefer brand B in an anonymous taste test. People may also say they favour a brand leader but it may rank poorly in a blind taste test.'

Sign up to be a taster

A taste panel discuss their findings.

A taste panel discuss their findings.

A recent interesting study was for a student's Masters project. A taste panel was given a range of sausages which were labelled differently (organic, farm-fed, GMO-free, free range etc). The panel had strong opinions on which they liked and which they did not. They were all eating the same sausage no matter what the label. This highlighted how people’s opinions may be affected by different marketing tactics.

While packaging and marketing undoubtedly effect people's perceptions, especially for an initial purchase, Catriona has firm ideas about why people continue to buy certain products. Issues like health and clean labels which list transparent, recognisable ingredients are important but not paramount:

'It has to taste good. People aren't driven as much by health. Taste is more important. If something doesn't taste good they just won't buy it.'

The Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation is looking for more people to join their taste panels. There is more information here and you can sign up here with Lucy MacLellan of QMU Food & Drink Consumer Tasting Panel on E: