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Inside the Food Lab

Before most processed food gets to market, it’s tasted and tested in Livermore.


Photos Courtesy of the National Food LaboratoryThe room looks more like a hospital waiting area than a dining room, but in front of me is a tray holding a stark white bowl filled with a measured amount of lettuce. A scientist sets Product 831, a yellow, oily liquid, before me. I pop off the plastic lid.

The computer screen in front of me quizzes me on the product’s appearance. Do I like or dislike the way it looks? Is it too light, too dark? Then, I smell. Does its scent appeal to me? The room is hushed, except for the clicking of keyboards followed by the crunching of crackers as other testers cleanse their palates.

Finally, it’s time to taste. I drizzle some of the substance into the bowl and stab the iceberg with my plastic fork. Product 831 is tangy, and the acidic flavor of vinegar clings to my tongue.

It is simply Italian salad dressing, but at The National Food Laboratory in Livermore, this taste test is a highly calculated, controlled experiment. In a moment, the two dozen or so people around me will receive Product 832, then 833, and 834. The testers selected for this session are all self-professed likers of Italian dressing who fit into the demographic the brand anticipates will buy the salad dressing once it hits supermarkets.

About 26,000 average folks from the East Bay are in the database at the lab, which helps food and beverage companies develop products. The lab, founded in Berkeley in 1976, has had a hand in how nearly 90 percent of brands sold in U.S. stores look, taste, and are manufactured, says CEO Kevin Waters. This means, unbeknownst to many, that East Bay residents have had a significant say in what recipes national food companies use, as well as how products are packaged and marketed.

“People love to do this,” says National Food Laboratory CEO Kevin Waters. “They feel they have a say in the product that ends up on the grocery store shelf.”

In addition to consumer testers, the company employs more than 30 panelists who, unlike consumers, are professionally trained to describe the taste, smell, appearance, and texture of food and drinks. Another 100 full-time microbiologists, chemists, and sensory analysts research and develop products from start to finish.

Some clients outsource only certain parts of the development process to the lab, while others have only a blueprint or an idea for a product in mind. It can take six to 18 months to get a product in stores, depending on manufacturing challenges, requirements set forth by the client (like the shelf life of yogurt), and how many testing sessions the product goes through before consumers and scientists say it’s just right.

Behind closed doors, in a prep kitchen out of the sight of consumer testers, scientists in gloves, hairnets, and lab coats measure and weigh each food sample. Another spotless kitchen through a doorway holds seven stoves and ovens—gas and electric, of course, so cooked food can be prepped exactly according to a client’s specifications.

Waters is tight-lipped about whose Italian dressing we’re trying in the taste test to ensure that consumers’ opinions won’t be affected by their view of the brand. The lab is so strict about its blind taste tests that the names of clients don’t appear anywhere in its prep kitchens or on its website, either.

“It could be your morning cereal, lunch meat, frozen dinner, pet food—even deodorant or mouthwash,” he says. On some occasions, the lab has had consumers wash their cars with a certain soap, or take home chewing gum so they can try it as they would in real life.

In addition to being elusive about the brand names he works with, Waters won’t reveal specific projects under way at the lab, but he will say that consumer demand is up for healthier options. Gluten-free, naturally sweetened, low-sodium, and protein-packed products are on the uptick, as are on-the-go snacks and ethnic and spicy foods, he says.

“We translate an idea on paper to a real-life product,” Waters says. “[Our scientists] can make an idea on paper taste good.”

For more information on the food lab and taste testing, visit thenfl.com.


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