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This food lab does things a little differently

If you’re trying to decide which of two cookies you like best, it doesn’t seem so hard. You take a couple of bites and make up your mind. Does it have sufficient chocolate in it? Yes? We have a winner.  

For food companies, there’s a lot more at stake. The questions are as complicated as the human brain, and the answers are elusive.

Lots of new food and drink products fail once they hit the market, according to Chris Simons, who teaches food sensory science in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Companies have a lot of motivation to figure out what consumers like before they invest in a new product.

For decades, the food industry has attempted to figure out what people like by offering products to average consumers sitting in a booth in a lab and offering products with all distractions carefully removed.

It makes sense as a science experiment. But, as Simons notes, it’s not the way people eat and drink in real life.

Simons and his students in Ohio State’s Food Perception and Liking Laboratory are taking an almost opposite approach. They set up an immersive environment, with nine 50-inch video screens, surround sound speakers and pump in smells to give people the sensations they’ll get in the real world when they’re consuming the product, whether that’s a coffee shop or a kitchen.

Their theory is that our environment has a lot to do with how we perceive what we’re tasting and how much we like a product. Their goal is to explore better testing methods and learn more about how our brains are wired at the same time.

Their approach is unique: The lab is the only one Simons is aware of at U.S. universities doing this kind of work, and is helping spark interest in the food industry.

Here’s a look at the lab’s work and some of what Simons and his students have found:

  1. Context matters.

    People had stronger coffee preferences when evaluated in a coffee shop setting compared to a lab setting. Not only that — their answers were more reliable in repeated tests. That’s intriguing for companies looking to improve their test results.

  2. Help them help you.

    “I believe that a more engaged panelist is likely to give me better data,” Simons said.

    Study participants are not always motivated, so they might not be as careful with their responses. Researchers have found that, not surprisingly, test participants do seem to be more interested in what they’re doing and enjoy it more when they’re sitting in, say, a mock home kitchen setting than when they’re under a red light in a lab booth.

  1. Bigger is better.

    Not all researchers have access to a wall of big screens, so one study had people try cookies in a booth with a smaller artificial environment — video on a computer screen, audio through headphones and artificial aroma.

    The results were more reliable than traditional testing, but not as good as the more immersive testing in the sensory lab.

  2. Scent may not be as important as we think.

    If you love aromatherapy, there’s no need to get upset — the lab didn’t study that angle. But the researchers did find that when it comes to product testing, visual and audio cues surprisingly seem to be more important than smell.

  3. Many questions remain.

    Our complex brains offer a big challenge, and the sensory lab has only begun to explore what the immersive approach can teach about our preferences.

    Simons said testing products in the real world also has its challenges: What if a kid starts screaming at the coffee shop and puts all the test subjects in a bad mood? That’s where the lab comes in. They can control the elements and make them identical for each participant.

    But how precise do they need to get? What if the server’s apron is supposed to look like a Starbucks employee’s, but it’s the wrong shade of green? What if the kitchen environment is fancy and upscale, and a participant lives in a small apartment with a tiny kitchen? Will that change the way the participant perceives the product?

    Simons doesn’t know yet, but he intends to keep probing.