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The truth about being a taste tester: It's not always tasty

Feb. 19, 2013 at 1:00 PM ET

Matt Rivera/NBC News /
Cathy Doppelt taste tests various apple juices.

Long before she became a professional taste tester, Cathy Doppelt knew she had a knack for picking out flavors. Years ago, her husband (then boyfriend) lined up five diet sodas in a blind test to see if she could identify her favorite, a brand she was very particular about. She nailed all five, naming each one after just a quick sip or even a whiff.

So a year and a half ago, when the Westchester, N.Y., mom saw a posting recruiting professional taste testers, she knew she had found her calling.

“It’s a sensory thing,” she told TODAY.com. “I knew I’d be able to do the work.”

To get the job at MMR Research, Doppelt had to pass a screening for sensory ability, where she identified solutions for sweet, salty, bitter and sour.

“The concentrations are pretty low. Some people can’t do it,” she said.

She also had to sniff different vials to name flavors and extracts. People forget, but the visual aspect of food is important as well as smell and taste, so taste testers can’t be color blind—or have food allergies. Being articulate and working well in a group are also big requirements.

No one will get rich being a taste tester, but the part-time hours appealed to Doppelt, a mother of two kids, as the job allowed her to get back into the work force but still get home in time for the end of the school day.

“Because of the nature of the job, you really can’t do this for more than two or two-and-a-half hours at a time,” she explained. “Your palate really does become fatigued.”

Indeed, the job is more intense than it sounds. Professional taste testing is very different than being a part of a focus group—it’s much more scientific and there’s even (gulp) math involved.

“It’s not just, ‘Tell us what you love about this product!’” Doppelt said. “It’s about coming up with a mathematical score for every granular aspect of a food or drink. It doesn’t have the glamour people would think.”

Not to mention, the group commonly tastes one category—like juice or crackers—for weeks on end.

When Doppelt’s group gets a new round of product to test, they come up with as many as 30 taste attributes—for example, in a cookie test, they may be looking for the individual strength of flavors like toffee, vanilla, flour and butter. Then the group rates each attribute on a scale.

“You think about food differently than you did you before,” Doppelt said. “It requires such a high level of concentration.”

To make sure results are consistent, the same round of tests are often conducted over and over—and tasters get individual reports on how “repeatable” their marks are.

“You’re getting graded on what you do, so it’s kind of stressful," she said. "You want to do a good job, and it’s totally quantitative. You go into test-taking mode.”

The real question is whether this job can make a taste tester a nightmare to cook for or tough to deal with at a restaurant. But Doppelt says the experience she’s gotten hasn’t really affected her personal life.

“The only thing I've noticed is that if my kids are eating something new and they say, 'Mom, want a taste?' I don’t need to taste it – I can tell how it tastes just by smelling it,” she said.

Even though the taste tests can be grueling, Doppelt still considers herself a major food lover and says her work has not turned her off from her passion for cooking – or eating.

“One of the other [testers] said [the job experience] has come in handy when sending food back in restaurant,” she laughed. “You know what you're talking about!"

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