MARSHALL, Minn. – A lot of what we enjoy about food isn’t necessarily based on taste. Imagine walking into the kitchen of someone you love, where you’ve enjoyed wonderful foods in the past. Something could taste good to you that others might not enjoy or purchase.
Food can taste good to you, but does the general consumer like it?
Taste testing is done to get an accurate read on how a new food may or may not be received by the buying customer.
It’s very important to test foods today as Millennials and their children, Generation Z, make their food choices.
For this reason, the Minnesota Legislature included funding for a Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Lab that has just opened in Marshall, Minn. Agricultural Utilization and Research Institute (AURI) and Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) share the lab.
The lab features a large office-sized open area where food is staged for tasters. Partitioned on the other side of two of the lab’s walls are nine individual carrels with chairs to separate individual food testing stations.
Researchers can change the color of the lighting in the tasting portion of the lab – from green, to beige, to pink, to blue, or purple, along with other more scientifically-named colors. Sound and social factors can be manipulated by the researchers, too.
At an open house held on Nov. 20, AURI and SMSU staff and students talked about their frustrating efforts to conduct taste tests in the past. Generally, tests were set up outside of SMSU’s cafeteria, but it was hard to get accurate information from hurried students. The same could be said for setting up samples at a grocery store or food market.
Even comments from other tasters affects how other tasters perceive it. One of the points of the new sensory lab is to help food developers and small food businesses avoid pitfalls and test their products before they’ve invested in products that consumers don’t want.
Developing this sensory lab became a priority in about 2015, said Shannon Schlecht, AURI Executive Director.
AURI is celebrating its 30th year as an organization. Its purpose has always been to look for opportunities and create utilization for crops that are grown in Minnesota and across the region.
Approximately 30 staff work within AURI.
“It’s a very service-driven and mission-driven organization,” he said. “The food sensory lab was a gap that we had, or a service that did not exist within the ecosystem from an AURI standpoint to really help those food entrepreneurs and those food processors with that next stage – testing and input – that can help accelerate those ideas.”
An example of how SMSU wants to use the lab involves their Culinology major that focuses on learning to produce nutritious and ready-made foods that taste homemade.
The sensory lab is vital to students studying Culinology or those in the more traditional Hospitality Management program.
“This sensory lab is going to add to what we can provide to our students,” said Raphael Onyeaghala, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Business, Education, Graduate and Professional Studies. Students will be offered access to the lab as part of their sensory analysis coursework.
For one sophomore in the Hospitality Management major, the sensory lab can help her and other students test out their recipes to gain experience.
“One of the big events we do is the faculty luncheon on campus,” she said. “It would be nice to bring in some of the faculty to see what they would like.”
AURI plans on using the SMSU community – from young freshmen, to continuing education students, or staff to serve on tasting panels.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to get that feedback that AURI is looking for, or that entrepreneurs are looking for,” said Ben Swanson, AURI food and nutrition scientist. “This can accelerate the good products, and quickly sort out the ones that aren’t going to make it from a consumer standpoint.”