ST. LOUIS — Their environment is totally controlled. No windows face the outside world. The air is pressurized to keep smells out, and the lights cast an even, feature-less glow. The room suffers no art or motivational posters, no music, no television chatter.
The only thing that matters here is the food. Behind a door marked "Sensory Staff Only," a dozen or so professional tasters spend their days testing ingredients that end up in thousands of products around the world. They sniff, taste, feel and spit. All day long.
Painstakingly trained, these tasters can describe the difference between a "vine-y green" and a "fresh-cut grassy green," a roasted peanut note from an over-roasted one.
They are "sensory specialists" — and an increasingly mechanized, sophisticated and complex food industry rests on their taste buds.
"You get paid to eat stuff," said Chaquita Johnson-Moore, a chef-turned-sensory panelist, during a recent break from a session tasting a nutritional drink. "People can't believe there are people who do this."
Based in the Central West End of St. Louis, Solae LLC bills itself as the world's leading soy ingredients developer. A partnership of DuPont and Bunge, the company produces ingredients found on often unwieldy package labels, bearing sometimes unrecognizable names. Its ingredients — lecithin or textured vegetable protein, to name a couple — are in foods including ice cream, beef patties and soup.
"It would be more fun with wine and cheese," joked Kimberly Hogan, a lab supervisor, watching the tasters through a two-way glass during a recent workday. "But we're testing soy protein isolate."
Like most major food ingredient, flavor or manufacturing companies, Solae relies on these specialists to develop formulations that will appeal to consumers. At Solae's St. Louis headquarters, the process has two components: consumers who volunteer to taste products and tell the company whether they like them; and the professional sensory specialists, also called panelists, who are paid to identify a product's characteristics.
"Our sensory panelists fill a special role, and they're highly skilled and highly trained," said Colleen Conley, who established and runs Solae's ingredient tasting labs. "They describe why consumers like something."
Finding out if a consumer likes a product is fairly straightforward. They taste a product, then basically give it a thumbs up or down. But asking a consumer why he or she likes a product can yield less specific information.
"Consumers are appallingly pitiful at telling you why they like something," said food scientist Gail Vance Civille. "We've learned that we can't ask them questions directly."
Civille, a New Jersey-based chemist by training, developed a method — the Spectrum Descriptive Analysis Method — that attempts to tell food manufacturers how to better formulate products. The system is one of a handful of tasting and analysis methods used by food manufacturers in the country, including Solae.
Through extensive training, tasters learn to identify dozens of different food attributes, then give each attribute an intensity ranking, from 0 to 15. The information then becomes usable data.
"We actually do mathematical modeling," Civille said. "... We create maps from the data that say: When this attribute in these products go up, consumers start licking their chops, and when these attributes in these products go up, they turn their noses."
This ability to map data makes product development faster and cheaper. "Instead of running one test here and one test there, this allows you to connect the dots," Civille said. "... I have a predictive equation."
On a recent workday, 11 specialists sat around the horseshoe-shaped table in the tasting room at Solae. Their task: to taste ingredients in a nutritional drink from Korea to help its maker improve the formulation.
The room was quiet, the only sound coming from the scraping of little plastic cups and the movement of pens on paper as each specialist wrote down figures.
One of the specialists, Kris Herring, took each sample, pushed it around in his mouth and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as he struggled to identify the characteristics of the ingredients.
"I considered myself to have a pretty well developed palate," Lancaster said. "But this is definitely more work than I initially thought."
To screen candidates, the company uses a taste acuity test that establishes whether a potential panelist has the palate for the job. Most people are eliminated during the process. But if they pass, they face a personality test, more taste acuity tests, and, perhaps most importantly, tests to determine how well they articulate what they taste.
"We go through hundreds and hundreds," Conley said. "We go through such a stringent process. We pretty much rule out anybody who doesn't have the ability."
In March, a new group of 15 candidates began their training, but only nine, including Herring and Johnson-Moore, succeeded. They spent 150 hours learning the Spectrum system, training their taste buds to objectively read characteristics and intensities. "That's one of the first things you learn — to not like or dislike," said Gil Woodrome, a newly installed specialist. "I'm looking for qualities in a food and how strong they are."
To rate the intensity of a food's qualities, the system uses common reference points. The cooked apple note in Mott's applesauce, for example, is a 5. The orange note in Minute Maid orange juice is a 7.5. The cinnamon note in Big Red gum is a 12.
So, for example, if the panelist tastes a moderately strong vanilla note in a sample, they might give it a 7.5. Panelists are trained to rate texture, using terms such as "chalky," ''tacky" or "slick"; or aromatics, using terms such as "barnyard" and "diacetyl."
"They have to learn a new language," Conley said. "It's like Chinese. You have to learn a new name for an item in front of you."
The specialists say that's one of the most challenging aspects of their job.
"We have so many different words to learn, it's overwhelming," Herring said. "But it gets easier. You get to a point where you're not making the translation."
The profession and its nomenclature have changed the way panelists eat — and live. They start their days with bland cereal, so as not to send their palates into a taste-altering tailspin before work, and they go home at the end of the day to irritate their spouses with their hyper-tuned sensory abilities.
"I drive my wife crazy," Woodrome said. "We go out to dinner, and I would start saying things about what I've learned, and my wife just gave me the look. Now I keep it to myself."
Their skills can sometimes prove unpleasant.
"I like the fact that I can taste every spice, every nuance. That's part of why I love eating," Johnson-Moore said, "But sometimes you're outside and you just don't want to smell something."
A person's impression of food is based on a combination of sensory factors and individual responses, some having to do with complicated, nuanced elements such as memory and personal history. In other words, it's entirely subjective.
But the taste industry has become so sophisticated that it can virtually assure its customers — the food manufacturers who make and market products — that consumers will like what they sell.
The $500 billion American food industry does not make room for serendipity, and a product, while marketed as if it emerged from Grandma's oven, has probably gone through a battery of tests and panels.
"Companies trust numbers," Civille said. "They're less inclined to trust grandmothers."
With "electronic" noses and "robotic tongues," the food industry development process has become more efficient at identifying winning ingredients and combinations. But machines, even the latest and most sophisticated, can go only so far.
The food development process still needs people.
"The electronic nose has to be trained to recognize good vanilla from not-so-great vanilla," Civille said. "These electronic noses and tongues need to be shown the way."
So for now, the human ability to taste is unmatched. Take the chemical compound called trichloroanisole, or TCA, responsible for the "off" taste of a corked wine. "Humans can detect it at 1 to 10 parts per trillion," Civille said. "I'm not afraid of a machine."
Neither are the sensory specialists at Solae.
"They have all kinds of machines upstairs to measure all kinds of things," Woodrome said, during a recent break from the tasting room. "But human taste buds can't be replaced."
With that he returned to the table, tasted a chunk of nutrition bar, jotted down some numbers and tasted again.