Picky Eaters Taste Food at Livermore Food Lab

Hundreds of America's most recognizable brands pay Livermore's National Food Lab thousands of dollars to be brutally honest about the taste of their products, so they can beat their competitors and ultimately improve a product's flavor, freshness and shelf life.

"They say we need someone to tell us how this product tastes like, how it smells and what it looks like, and what it’s texture is," the lab's president Kevin Waters said. "But we need that done in very consistent almost machine like terms."

The  lab, whose clients have included Dole, Kraft and Smuckers, said food that comes into its headquarters mirrors what Americans are buying and eating.  In the 1990s, the trend was to test food that was fat free. Today, much of the food is mostly organic, all-natural and sodium- and gluten-free.

"You think someone comes up with a formula, puts it on the shelf, it really doesn’t work like that," said the lab's Sensory Manager Sharon McEvoy, a professional taste tester. "Food companies are working on something all the time to make sure they’re the best product out there. They come to us for the truth.  They come to us for science.  I do have people who think their product is wonderful and I’ll caution them a little bit.  I’m like we’re going to give you the unvarnished truth and if that’s what you want, come to us and we’ll give it to you."

Much of the work done at the lab relies on picky eaters: Professional taste testers who are hired not only for their acute sense of taste and smell, but their ability ot verbalize what they observe.

"We call them canaries. They’re really very super sensitive.  Things other people might not notice, they can really key in on," McEvoy said.

There are at least four other labs like it nationwide, with another one on the Peninsula.

For more information on the lab, or to see how you can become a taste tester, click here.

Watch the full report on this tonight at 11 p.m.

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