It's a bountiful life: The science of the senses
Jan./Feb. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Interview and photo by Ching Lee
Sniffing and slurping are all part of the job for sensory scientist Sue Langstaff.
More online: Olive Oil Scorecard
Sniffing and slurping are part of the job for Sue Langstaff, a sensory scientist who heads the Olive Oil Tasting Panel at the University of California, Davis.
Sue Langstaff uses her senses and a standardized scoring system to evaluate olive oil, served in blue glasses to hide the color of the product so it is a true blind taste test.
What do sensory scientists do?
There are two kinds: people who focus on the analytical aspect and the chemistry, and people in consumer studies asking people how much they like the products. (The latter) are usually part of marketing departments, whereas what I do is usually part of product development. Both pieces are important in trying to figure out why consumers like something.
Do you have to like food to be a sensory scientist?
It helps if you like what you're evaluating, but it doesn't have to be food-related. The profession is growing quite a bit. There are sensory scientists working with other senses, like in textiles. For example, Procter & Gamble has a huge sensory research department, because their diapers have to feel soft against the baby's bottom, and the only way to measure that is with humans.
How do you evaluate olive oil?
We have a standardized tasting sheet that we use. First we smell it, then we taste and then we rate the attributes that are present in the oil. We look for defects and then we evaluate positive attributes: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. We also look for more specific attributes: What kind of fruit? Is it a ripe fruit? Also concepts like balance, complexity, freshness.
How often do you taste bad oils?
Quite frequently. The United States is a dumping ground for the rest of the world's rancid oils, but we don't know; we're ignorant. We have to educate people that this is not acceptable, because we can make good olive oil here in California, and it should be what we put on the table.
Putting olive oil to the test
Sue Langstaff and other members of the Olive Oil Tasting Panel at the University of California, Davis, evaluate olive oils based on attributes listed on this standardized scoring sheet (PDF). The oils are served at a specified temperature range in special glasses that purposely hide the appearance of the oil so that tasters do not judge the product based on their preconceived notions of the color.