By Julia Harris
If you’re someone who’s inclined to forget your lunch money — or just someone who enjoys sampling free food — you might want to make the acquaintance of Melody Leidheiser at Ohio State’s Food Industries Center.
Not only is she a nice person, she’s also the program coordinator of the center’s Sensory Evaluation program, where volunteers get to snack on things like sausage and pumpkin seeds and whatever else a company wants to test out on consumers.
And, as if the free food weren’t incentive enough, taste testers are also sent home with a gift card of some kind, usually to Target or Kroger, often for $15 or $20.
Obviously, Leidheiser’s job description entails more than just handing out free gift cards. What she really enjoys, she says, is helping businesses both large and small make informed decisions about their products through robust sensory evaluations.
“A lot can go wrong with a start-up product if you haven’t done your work ahead of time,” she said as she stood in the center’s small prep kitchen, ladling salsa samples into plastic cups. “Sensory evaluation can tell you if your product is any good, if anyone will want it, and if it either meets or beats the competition.”
She wiped her hands on a towel and pulled out a huge bag of round tortilla chips. “I don’t care if ‘Grandma’s Barbecue Sauce’ is the best thing you’ve ever had in your life. There are 45 different kinds of barbecue sauce on the shelf right now, so you’ve got to differentiate yourself, and the only way to do that is to put your sauce in front of the consumer and let them tell you, ‘Wow, I’m going to buy this.’”
The sensory program is only one part of the comprehensive Food Industries Center, a unique suite of services and facilities within the Department of Food Science and Technology that helps bring food products to market, from concept to production to marketing. In full swing since 2008, the sensory program has garnered a database of more than 2,000 volunteers to provide consumer input on an almost infinite variety of products.
“Our costs are low, so we’re able to work at a much lower rate than an outside consumer research company, which appeals to smaller companies and mom-and-pop businesses across Ohio,” said Leidheiser, who only holds a part-time appointment. “Our focus is to help them get started. We’ve helped launch 15 businesses in almost three years. Some businesses haven’t launched, and that’s also a really good thing for them to find out.”
Established companies are looking for ways to cut sugar, fat, salt and other ingredients, as well as for ways to add healthy ingredients while reducing or maintaining cost. It’s a tall order, to be sure, and because she’s pretty much a staff of one, Leidheiser tries to limit the number of sensory studies so that only one goes on at a time.
Having just completed what she describes as “days and days of testing” for local giant Bob Evans, she is more than happy to share space with graduate students in food science, many of whom also provide assistance to her during sensory trials.
One of them, second-year master’s student Tessa Bowman, recently completed a taste test on roasted pumpkin seeds with approximately 80 participants. The goal was to determine what kind of spice mix — salty, sweet or savory — was most palatable.
As it turned out, most tasters didn’t care for sweet seeds — and not many were motivated by the $3 gift card they got for their trouble.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we could only offer $3 to volunteers,” Bowman said sheepishly. “It was really hard to get those 80 people.”
The lesson was taken to heart by Scott Kottman, a fellow grad student who is just beginning his sensory trials with a radish-based dye he hopes will someday replace Red 40, an artificial compound linked to hyperactivity and cancer.
He lobbied hard for a $5 payout for his participants, he said, because “There’s money in radishes.” He grinned. “Radish anthocyanin is a potent antioxidant and very stable, but if you’ve ever had a radish, you know they don’t taste very good. It’s a pretty color, but you don’t want your food or beverage to taste or smell like a radish when it’s supposed to taste and smell like cherry.”
Sign me up!
To become a panelist on future sensory evaluations, go to foodindustries.osu.edu and click on the Consumer Sensory Testing tab.