See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 5: Cold Leftovers with a Fine North Dakota Cabernet


Courtesy of the Institute Nofima Mat in Norway.

Photo: Kjell J. Merok/Nofima Mat

Professional food tasters can refine their palates to predict when a product's cooking oil will turn.


        Linda Blade has trouble with leftovers. Not all leftovers, just those containing meat, of any type. She refuses to reheat a meat dish and will choose instead to eat cold Chinese leftovers on warm rice, or cold meatballs on warm pasta. The reason is that she can’t help but taste what she calls the ‘warmed-over’ flavor of reheated meat. As a sensory specialist working in the field for over 20 years, she has been trained, and trains others, to detect the undesirable flavor of warmed-over meat – a flavor that food manufacturers try to avoid. The manufacturers pay Linda well for evaluating, and training panels to evaluate, the flavor of their foods. The panelists work to determine a flavor’s components, consistency, and quality. Fortunately, when Linda eats outside the lab, warmed-over flavor is one of the few quality problems she still can’t ignore.

        But this wasn’t always the case. For the first few years after her own taste training, she had trouble turning off her analytical palate. She remembers difficulty ignoring the flavors of overcooked peanuts in peanut butter, and of early oxidation of the oil used to cook potato chips. This is typical of newly trained sensory specialists. “The first few years after you train, casual eating is not a pleasant experience. And if you ever end up going to a restaurant with a bunch of new sensory evaluators, God help you”, she laughs. Much of the evaluators’ training is geared towards picking out diminishing quality before it can be tasted by the general public. They are the ones largely responsible for determining the projected shelf-life of a food—the ‘Best eaten before. . .’ dates printed on packages. “We’ll need to detect the slightest hints of oil starting to turn bad in snack foods.” This takes intensive training to taste, and this training is difficult to turn off at first.

        But despite this temporary drawback, tasting panelists typically enjoy what they do. According to Linda Blade, “They love learning about their own taste skills. Their amazed at how complex their experiences of flavor can be”. When Linda is hired by a manufacturer (Kraft, Cadbury, Pepsi), she will recruit panelists from the local community. No special skills are required, but applicants are screened for a simple ability to recognize the flavors of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour, and to taste different concentrations of these flavors. After passing this screening, their taste training begins.

        “Basically, I’m training them to become human tasting instruments. They’re learning how to concentrate on individual flavors, and just as importantly, acquiring a language to describe their flavor experiences” Linda says. “Most people don’t think very much about taste. They eat something and they either like it or they don’t. But taste is much more complex than this. My job as a trainer is to get people to really taste things, and then to report what they taste in a consistent way.” Much of the training involves having blindfolded panelists taste and sniff ingredients—cinnamon, clove, melon—and try to recognize them. Tastes, like smells, are notoriously hard to recognize without some context (visual, tactile), and novice panelists will often be faced with tip-of-tongue experiences. “They’ll say that the taste is familiar, but not be able to identify it with words”. Linda will help out by encouraging them to think of some personal association. “A flavor might remind someone of a cake their grandmother used to make. I’ll then tell them it’s clove, and that whenever a taste reminds them of their grandmother’s cake, they’ll know their tasting clove.” From weeks of this type of training, most panelists will be able to identify, and quantify flavors in a food, as well as evaluate the flavors’ freshness and consistency across multiple samples. And panelists turn out to be impressively consistent with these evaluations, both across their own judgments and those of other panelists.

    When I ask Linda what it takes to become an expert taster, she responds that it really only depends on a panelist’s motivation and ability to focus. She believes that there is nothing inherently different in the tasting physiology of the expert, and that in principle, we all have what it takes to be expert tasters. So, it simply comes down to attention and practice, and, as you’ll soon learn, your brain’s ability to support the benefits of intensive sensory experience.