Have you heard the Food Industry story about the man with the golden tongue? His taste buds were so valuable the company he worked for insured his tongue for a cool million. The policy covered a man by the name of John Harrison. Even if you don’t know his name, you can tip your hat (or scale) to him for creating Cookies ‘n Cream back in 1982. Though this is a hotly contested claim, there is no doubt that Harrison holds the title for supertaster in the food industry. Harrison was the Official Taste Tester for Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream from 1980 to 2010.
Harrison says the difference between his taste buds and everyone else’s can be summed up in one word-experience: “From the olfactory nerve in the forehead to the nostrils and tongue, we all have the same equipment; mine is just trained. I learned at an early age about creams and sugars and grew up working in every aspect of ice cream.”
So, what does it take to be a trained taster?
It’s all about flavor and how it ’s described. Flavor is the bases for developing a product profile by using the sensory method of descriptive analysis.
Flavor is the combination of what a person tastes, smells, and the sensations or texture as food is eaten.
Taste is broken down into sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Each of the basic tastes can be narrowed down to a location on the tongue where it is perceived. Taste buds are the little bumps covering the tongue. A supertaster may have more taste buds than a regular taster.
Tongue with four different taste areas. © Peter Hermes Furian.
Aroma adds the next layer to flavor description. The nose detects the aroma. Chewing food releases chemicals that travel up the olfactory nerve where the brain interprets how the food tastes and smells. This explains why plugging the nose eliminates all flavor but the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
Try this simple exercise:
- Plug your nose and place a peppermint candy on your tongue
- Swirl the candy around in your mouth and over your tongue to build up saliva
- Close your eyes and describe what you taste
- Keep the candy in your mouth continuing to move it around
- Release your nose and describe the flavor
Did you notice the basic taste was sweet while your nose was plugged? Once you release your nose the aroma of peppermint should have been very strong. This exercise illustrates how taste and aroma combine to create a flavor.
Texture is the final layer of flavor description. It has an impact on how flavor is perceived and how long it persists in the mouth. Think about the difference between a crunchy and salty food compared to something sweet and sticky.
When you put food in your mouth think about the following:
- How do you move your tongue around?
- What sounds influence the way the food eats?
- How quickly does the food break down?
- Is it quick to melt, brittle, chewy, easy to push your tongue through?
- Is there food compacted in your teeth after chewing making the flavor last longer?
Back to the rule of the golden tongue.
During Harrison’s career, he tasted and approved over 200 million gallons of ice cream. To keep his tasting abilities in top shape, he had a strict diet during the work week. He drank herbal decaf tea to cleanse his palate, avoided onions, garlic, caffeine, or anything that could clog his taste buds. He didn’t smoke, drink alcohol, and avoided spicy foods. He went on to develop several more successful flavors for Dreyer’s such as New York Blueberry Cheesecake, Peanut Butter Cup, and Peaches ‘n’ Cream.
Golden tongues are the unicorns of the food industry. Unlike Harrison, who was a supertaster, the golden tongue has no formal training in sensory or descriptive analysis. It is one person in a food company who approves all products that go to market.
The rule of the golden tongue- (unless you’re insured for one million dollars for your super tasting abilities) one person should not make all the taste decisions for your company. Use a trained sensory panel. Analyze and taste by consensus not by a gold tongue.