Coming soon to a grocery store near you — several new coffee flavors handpicked, or rather, taste-bud-picked by WSU sensory panelists.
In the past several weeks, about 55 WSU volunteers took part in a flavored coffee taste-testing panel conducted by researchers from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The company that hired WSU to conduct the study is preparing to launch three newly formulated coffee flavors of chocolate, hazelnut and vanilla, based on the research results. The new coffee should soon be available in most grocery stores.
Conducting sensory panels such as this is nothing new to FSHN, said Stephanie Clark, an assistant professor and scientist who directed the study. But she added that this test was something of a groundbreaker — it is the first one the college has ever been hired to do.
“We have been doing sensory panels as part of our own research for a very long time,” said Mike Costello, an FSHN researcher who also helped conduct the study. “But now WSU will be getting something back for what we have been doing.”
Costello wants the money brought in from paying clients to help the college upgrade the sensory analysis facilities. “We would like to computerize this,” he said.
While computerization will be an expensive endeavor, Costello says they will be financially half way to their goal after two more projects.
Other programs on campus also make use of the facility, such as psychology, animal science and biological systems engineering.
Clark says another benefit from working with a paying clientele is the impact it will have on students. “It gives us the chance to introduce students into real-life, high pressure situations,” she said.
“Sensory analysis is a big and important part of food science, so this allows us to get our students involved in doing the real thing, like they will be in industry,” Clark said. “Students get to interact with other companies and gain experience from designing and conducting panels.”
“There are few places in this part of the country that do this kind of work. (Clients can) find us online when they do a Web search on sensory,” she said.
Although the college does not plan to advertise the service, Clark thinks there will be no trouble attracting business. The WSU sensory facility is the only one in the state. The nearest competing facility is in Portland.
While finding clients might not be hard, getting enough volunteers to participate for the panels can be. Often, incentives are given to get people to show up. For the coffee study, not only did participants get a free caffeine rush, they also got coupons for Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shop, and had direct influence on an actual product going to market, Clark said.
Unfortunately for others interested in trying the new coffee, the name of the company cannot be released for a few weeks. Clark said the coffee company, which is located in Washington, is hoping to compete with an established brand of flavored coffees but want their product in stores before their name is released.
“We had three samples of each flavor, so we had our participants do a preference test between the established brand and the new formulation, and a preference test between the company’s new formulation versus their old formulation,” Clark said. “All of this was randomized, so the participants didn’t know which ones they were getting.”
Once the tests had been conducted, Clark and her colleagues analyzed the data. After the first test in December, Clark said that the participants overwhelmingly picked the newly formulated vanilla and chocolate flavors over the established brand, but there was a virtual tie between the new and established brand of hazelnut.
So the company changed their recipe and sent back a revised version to WSU to be tested. A new set of panelists tasted it in January, but again no significant preference was found among the established, new and newest formulations. From these data, Clark said she does not know if the company will release the newest flavor or continue to improve upon it.
Currently, Clark and Costello are already planning another taste test — this time for a company that sells trout. Milk and ice cream taste tests are also on the future agenda through WSU research.
Written by Emmy Sunleaf
Reprinted from WSU Today: March 21, 2003.