By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
The average grocery store has 82,000 items. That’s a massive amount of food and products when you really think about it. And many of those products you see lining the shelves are so basic and—let’s be honest, boring—that we take them for granted.
But even the tritest foods go through a rigorous process to get just the right placement on your local shelf.
After a products conception, it undergoes several phases of research and development. Many of these phases include taste panels and test groups.
I was part of one such phase last week when I was invited to Montana State University’s Gallatin College to be a part of a taste panel, or sensory evaluation, for Sumedha Gard, a graduate student in the MSU Food Product Development Lab.
On the surface, taste testing anything is beyond fun, at least for a chef it is. But there’s also a deeper dive into any number of things; from ingredient make-up to what the desired demographic is. All of that determines much of the success of the product.
Gard is developing a smoothie premix made of novel Montana berries such as serviceberry and currant. While this may seem less interesting than going to the dentist, it was a chance to nerd out with peers and colleagues and really dissect, in this case, just what makes a good smoothie good.
Imagine a chef, four culinary instructors and a Ph.D. of food development (no, not walk into a bar) talking about berry smoothies for an hour and 15 minutes.
I sat in with the rest of the culinary instructors from the program as we first independently then collectively went through the modality of 10 different samples, with one blind commercial smoothie thrown in the mix for some perspective and reference.
We first mapped these 10 samples on our own. Mapping is the process of organizing things inside an empty square or rectangle box for the purpose of comparing that box to other boxes to see patterns, similarities and differences.
But here’s the interesting part to this empty sheet of paper: There is no uniform or standard for where you place them in the box, or what your individual criteria are for why you place them where you do. The only thing you must do is make written notes so when they are all collectively compared for differences and similarities, there is some explanation behind each person’s thought process.
We touched on bliss point, something I’ve written about before; texture; flavor; ingredients; color; mouthfeel; and on and on. After the tasting, we took off our chef and instructor hats and put on our consumer hats. What a chef may believe to be the ultimate smoothie may be mildly interesting at best for the average consumer.
Confusing, I know.
This is just a simple smoothie, and Gard and her instructor, Dr. Wan-Yuan Kuo, have the task of digesting all our notes, all our discussion and each of our individual maps to decipher commonality.
It’s as if someone told you to analyze 10 vehicles on what you believe you like, and then what another driver might like, with no parameters as to what makes any given vehicle better or worse to you.
And this was only one step of many in a long process. For a smoothie.
But this is literally how the sausage is made. The next time you are in the grocery store and grab a jar of pickle relish without thinking about it, think about it.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is an executive chef, former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.