Life on the frozen-food-tasting line


Matthew, an odd-jobbing freelance artist, took a job as a frozen-food taster ("trained sensory panelist"), spending long days stuffing fried food in his mouth and rating it on 50-100 attributes, swirling mashed potatoes around his mouth, getting mouth-blisters from all the salt. If you've ever wondered how frozen food manufacturers decide how much cardboard taste is too much, here is your answer:

Matthew: I’d come home with huge blisters in my mouth from the salt. Yeah, fried food doesn’t have the same appeal anymore. And the other amazing thing is seeing the whole world behind literally every product we consume. Every aspect of the foods, taste, appearance, texture, is so insanely focus grouped and tested. Every major food company has a similar testing process.

Mike: Does this mean you were eating many different versions of the same curly fry?

Matthew: Yes, there’d be slight variations in spices, in cooking time, in the kind of potato. We’d test them at different intervals to see how the taste changed once they were taken out of the fryer, or how micro-waving them would affect their texture. One aromatic that was fun to pick out was “cardboard”—an actual aromatic on the ballot—and to compare we had cups of water with brown paper towels in them.

Matthew: Oh, and another weird thing I learned: To cut corners with cheese products companies sometimes use the acids from cheese production instead of the more expensive cheese products, and these acids are basically bile from different animals (a food scientist might have a more nuanced view). So sometimes we’d be spitting out these inexpensive cheese products all day, and your mouth would just be full of this vomit bile taste.

What It’s Like to Work as a Professional Frozen Food Taster [Mike Dang/The Billfold]

(via Super Punch)

(Image: Nasi Bami Dutch frozen, CC-BY-SA, Nasischijf/Wikimedia Commons)

Notable Replies

  1. Such hate for frozen food. I do not understand this venom.

    When faced with a shipping/preservation method that threatens to lower end-user satisfaction, a company takes a deliberate, structured approach to maximizing enjoyment. Rather than saying "but this old way is how we always did things," or just guessing at a solution, they have a calculated, dare I say scientific approach to the situation. Isn't that exactly the sort of mindset BB typically encourages?

  2. contempt? how so?

    they have a product, food. they need to make it taste as good as they can and make it as cheap as they can to get it to as many people as they can. taste testing is a process to, as well as possible, rate the taste of the product. making sure it tastes good is hardly contempt for the customer...it's what you SHOULD do as a food company. making sure it's cheap is also what you should do, it makes it easier for the customer to buy it. it is hard on the worker sure, but that's why they get PAYED. work often comes with hardships. RMI, callouses, eye strain, blisters. these are things that happen and it's why we mandate employers provide insurance.

    this shows no signs of contempt, nor caring...this shows signs of business. they make a product, you buy the product, everyone's happy. you don't like the product, you don't buy the product, maybe they make a better product you do buy.

    this isn't inherently wrong, its just neutral.

  3. It's a strange thread of cultural elitism that runs through a lot of otherwise progressive circles. You see the same reaction to fast food--I once saw a list of 100 iconic/unusual foods, and there were people saying "I'd like to try the cheese with live maggots in it sometime, but a Big Mac? Ewww! No! Disgusting!" It's bizarre.

    Sometimes, people don't have a lot of money, but they also don't have the time or energy or skill or access to cook for themselves. These people need to eat too. There's nothing wrong with trying to optimize both the price and the tastiness of eating poor.

  4. Yeah, but you'd have gone knowing that you were right, and that's got to be worth something.

  5. It is pretty common, and it is always shitty. One thing you're missing is that, at a lot of companies, "full-time" is a nasty little euphemism for "full-time salaried," and excludes contractors who put in the same 40+ hours as everyone else, doing the same work in the same place, but get an hourly wage and worse/no benefits.

    But even for actual part-timers, there is never any justification to treat them like their contributions matter less. It is one of the shittiest, most pointlessly petty little power rituals that I've seen in corporate America. And boy, doesn't it feel good when the major local employer proudly talks about how every one of their employees gets industry-beating health care, and you're the only one in the room who knows that when they say "employee" they mean less than 20% of their actual workforce.

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