Did You Know?: Sensory Evaluation Laboratory

August 19, 2015  

Andrea Lieaga

Andrea Liceaga, director of the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory and associate professor of food science, stands in the lab located in Nelson Hall of Food Science. Volunteer panelists from the campus and community visit the lab to evaluate food products based on flavor, aroma, appearance, texture and more. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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­­­­­Located in the basement of Nelson Hall of Food Science is Purdue's own Sensory Evaluation Laboratory, where voluntary panelists from the campus and community evaluate food products based on flavor, aroma, appearance, texture and more.

The lab is considered Purdue's connection to partners in industry as it designs studies and collects data to support research and development for the products that line the aisles of our grocery stores. The lab also collaborates with faculty at Purdue and other universities in research projects that require a sensory evaluation component.

"The tests are very standardized, objective and analytical so that we can statistically prove if the products are different, how the attributes are perceived, and finally, how much consumers like or dislike particular attributes of the product," says lab director Andrea Liceaga, who is also associate professor of food science.

Kroger sponsored the lab when it opened in 1998, and the lab has worked with companies such as Nestlé, Campbell's and Mrs. Fields in the past. For confidentiality reasons, Liceaga could not disclose what additional companies and brands use the sensory lab.

With the help of manager Angie Albright -- a Purdue graduate who has worked as the lab's manager for the past three years -- and the Purdue students who work in the lab, the entire serving process is monitored. From ensuring that all samples are the same portion size, to controlling for appearance and temperature, to assigning each sample a three-digit random number ("to prevent sample coding from being psychologically associated with something positive or negative," Liceaga says), a number of factors are taken into account before the samples reach the panelists -- 3,000 of whom come through the lab each year. As one could expect with that number, the lab is busy all day, almost every day of the week.

Sensory Evaluation Lab

During their visit to the Sensory Evaluation Lab, volunteer panelists answer a series of questions about the food product being evaluated. Most tests conducted in the sensory lab take less than 10 minutes per participant. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Most tests conducted in the sensory lab take less than 10 minutes per participant. Panelists are not paid in cash, but are compensated for their participation in the form of snacks (think candy and granola bars) or gift cards. Usually these rewards are enough to lure participants, but there are still slow days.

One afternoon, when tests on chicken bites were taking longer than expected, students in the lab discussed solutions.

"Could we continue testing tomorrow?" one suggested.

"We don't have tomorrow," Albright replied. "We're booked."

With all that happens behind the scenes, it's interesting how simple the process appears to panelists.

"When people come, sit in a booth and press the booth button, they don't know all the work and planning that is happening behind the booths," Liceaga says.

Those interested in participating in a sensory test can follow the lab's twitter account (@PurdueSensory) for updates on when tests are happening and what products are being tested, or email aalbright@purdue.edu to be added to the email listserv.

Writer: Anna Schultz, schult70@purdue.edu

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