How Food Manufacturers Test Products on Consumers Who Are Too Young To Read, Write, or Make Rational Decisions

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June 26 2012 3:49 PM

The Littlest Tasters

How do food manufacturers conduct sensory research on consumers too young to read, write, or make rational decisions?

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Pictorial scales do a good job of eliciting reliable responses from kids who are old enough to understand what they mean, but companies have a tougher time gauging reactions to new products aimed at children who not only can’t read but whose cognitive abilities are nascent. For example, a child 5 or younger is limited by what psychologists call “centration,” which means he can consider only one attribute of a food at a time. A kindergartener can tell you his judgment of a food’s appearance, or of its texture, or of its flavor—but he can’t synthesize these aspects to tell you about the full sensory experience.

Researchers like Dawn Chapman, the sensory and data project manager at the National Food Lab, a consulting firm and consumer research facility in Livermore, Calif., sometimes engage preschoolers in one-on-one interviews to try to tease out their true feelings about a food. This approach can be costly for clients, however, since interviews are time and labor intensive compared with a scenario in which a large number of kids complete a test in a single sitting. Also, there’s a danger of false self-reporting. Though preschool-aged children are not known for their social graces, they sometimes withhold honest feedback if it contradicts their parents’ teachings on good manners or disapproval of junk food. “We reassure them as best we can with lots of smiles, inflections of the voice, and a welcoming environment that their real feelings are really what we want to hear,” says Chapman.

And what about the tightest-lipped, most cognitively challenged demographic of all? For infants and toddlers, sensory testing is often conducted at home, since such young children are most comfortable sitting in their own highchair or eating out of their regular bowl. (There’s also less chance of misinterpreting a baby’s rejection of a food as a sign of dislike when it’s really a sign of discomfort at being in an unfamiliar setting, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.) Researchers rely on mothers to read and translate their babies’ facial expressions and transcribe them to a seven- or nine-point scale that ranges from “extreme liking” to “extreme disliking.” Of course, the simplest test to determine whether a baby likes something is to note whether the food has been swallowed and ingested or spat out.

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So what have sensory researchers learned from all the smiley faces, stars, and reports of “extreme dislike”? Parents will be unsurprised to hear that kids’ palates are very different from adults’. Whereas adults tend to appreciate complexity, depth of flavor, and textural contrast, young children steer toward more-singular taste profiles and soft foods. They notoriously find “bits” or particulates in their food off-putting, often rejecting chunky peanut butter or jams with pieces of fruit or pulpy orange juice. Still, kids are by no means without an adventurous spirit. Sensory research shows that inexplicably, children as young as 5 have an inordinately higher tolerance for intense sourness (consider the hugely popular Warheads Extreme Sour Candy) at levels that adults find virtually intolerable.

What about the cold pizza sauce that, as Kraft discovered, kids loved even though their parents abhorred it? One theory is that young children haven’t yet developed a point of view about temperature; rather, their preferences are mostly influenced by flavor and texture.  

But there’s another explanation for why kids loved pizza Lunchables when adults didn’t. If there’s one overwhelming conclusion researchers have drawn from sensory testing about kids’ preferences, it’s that they’re crazy about sugar—a predilection that actually develops in utero. And it’s not just that kids like sweet, says Gary Beauchamp, the president and director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center; they crave it in much higher concentrations than adults do.

So it’s not just the adventure of constructing their own made-to-order (cold) pie that’s made countless kids beg their parents to send them to school with an Extra Cheesy Pizza Lunchable, including juice and Airheads candy, in tow. The combination box’s 28 grams of sugar (that’s nearly six teaspoons) probably has something to do with it, too.

Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; the United States and Europe switch perspectives on GMOs; celebrating the inevitable decline of the cookbook; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.