FOR THE PAST four months I have been working as a Food Technologist at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh, a place described by my (desk) neighbour, Professor Joe Goldblatt, as “the best small university in the world”. The university is predominantly food and health focused and part of my job is conducting sensory analysis of products ranging from everyday supermarket goods to the most innovative of food stuffs.
Opened in 2014, QMU houses the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation. The centre is a unique facility that uses academic expertise and cutting edge equipment to work with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to develop their products for today’s market.
The modern campus at QMU has a dedicated sensory suite where we carry out our consumer taste panels. The suite contains 12 self-contained booths where our panelists blind-taste a wide range of products, using their senses to complete a focused questionnaire for us to analyse on our specially developed sensory software. Afterwards, we host a brief discussion on the products which, for me, is the interesting part along with the results because although people have tasted the same items, results can be totally different. It just goes to show that everyone’s palette is unique.
It’s crucial to our results that we make the room as neutral as possible so panelists can form an unbiased opinion. We can control the temperature of the room and use different coloured lighting to alter the room to suit. The panels consist of mainly staff members and the general public who have an interest in food. In exchange for their time, we gift each person a £10 Amazon or John Lewis voucher.
Before the sessions my colleagues and I will have prepared the food and tasted it. This way we have our own opinion on the foods before the panel tastes it, although we remain completely impartial! The fun is afterwards when we compare opinions, usually doing the dishes at the same time – the glamorous part of the job!
From a panelist’s point of view, it’s challenging because it’s not often in life that you are asked to describe food in such a detailed way: aroma, appearance, taste, texture and so on. I got used to it doing restaurant reviews but it can be a little odd for people at first when it comes to articulating your points. How often do you eat something and talk about how sweet/sour/umami/salty/bitter it is!?
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My colleague, Lucy MacLellan, sat on the panels before joining the team as a Food Technologist at the Scottish Centre for Food Innovation gives me her take on the panels:
"The taste panels are quite a unique thing to be involved in – I'm not aware of any other universities or organisations that run taste panels like QMU. There was nothing similar to these taste panels when I was at university and it's definitely something I would have signed up for when I was a student. I mean, who doesn't want free food?!
“I like the fact that the panels are recruited so publicly – anyone can become a taste panelist at QMU whether you're staff, a student, or not linked to the university at all. There's such a variety of products tested, so there always a panel to put your name forward for. It's exciting that my opinion will be taken into consideration and will make a difference to future products on the market."
I hope this has given you an insight into the consumer panels at QMU. As you can gather, no day is the same and it’s amazing to chat food with a diverse range of foodies. We would love to see more people signing up for the panels to get a taste for themselves.
If you are interested in signing up, email Consumerpanels@qmu.ac.uk or click this link for further information: http://www.qmu.ac.uk/marketing/press_releases/QMU-launches-recruitment-drive-for-super-tasters-in-Edinburgh-Lothians.htm