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College of Human Ecology

Getting a feel for what works, what doesn't

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Will Klusener, Staff Writer
The Manhattan Mercury

Patricia Patterson eats dog food. So do Margo Fick and Anice Robel. Sound tasty? They don't think so.

So what makes these women stomach Milkbones and Kibbles 'n' Bits, among others? As research assistants for the Sensory Analysis Center at K-State, they test the food for a variety of factors, including texture, taste and smell.

What sets these women apart from the 15 other assistants at the center is that they were featured in the book Odder Jobs, by New York based photojournalist Nancy Rica Schiff. The book chronicles unusual occupations held by people around the United States.

The book can be misleading, however. Patterson is listed in the book as a dog food tester, Fick is labeled a paper towel sniffer, and Robel's title is "face feeler." But these women do much more than their respective job titles suggest.

Robel said 75 percent of the products they test are food-related, and dog munchies are only one of them. Everything from different shades of paint to the ingredients that go into 7-Up are subject to critique, and corporations have flown the women around the globe to get their opinions.

"We flew to Thailand once to sample exotic fruits," said Patterson, who with eight years at the lab is the junior of the group. "There were fruits there that no one here has ever heard of."

Some days their assignment might be to judge the smoothness of a man's face after a shave with a particular brand of razor (face feeler), and on others they might be asked to evaluate the smell and texture of paper towels made from different types of trees (paper towel sniffer).

"One paper towel company tried to make paper towels with a new tree that nobody used, and when they got wet they gave off a pretty bad aroma," said Fick, who's been at the lab for 16 years. She likes to wet the towels in brandy snifters and waft out the aroma.

The reports they send back to the products' manufacturers help with marketing, Robel said, but she emphasized that they don't tell companies whether they like the product. The dog food they test periodically is a perfect example of this, she said.

"A dog will eat its own poop, so we don't need to test it to see if it's good or not," Robel said. "The research is to test for product rancidity, because the dogs' owners won't buy dog food that smells weird or has a strange texture."

This isn't just cutesy volunteer work. The women are trained, paid professionals, Patterson said. Testers go through many hours of training to learn the proper methodology, and undergo a battery of tests, such as eyesight and smell, to make sure they're capable and able to perform.

The women also have guidelines they must follow in order to be as objective and accurate as possible. To keep their senses from dulling, perfume or makeup with any discernible scent is strictly off limits, Fick said, and they are only allowed to work from 9 a.m. to noon.

Current and prospective testers must also meet a long list of medical requirements. After all, Robel said, a tester can't analyze food texture very well if she has false teeth.

So how did Schiff hear about these Kansas women all the way from New York?

"Someone told me that they'd heard about a face feeler on public radio, so I just got in touch with the people at public relations," said Schiff, whose prior book, Odd Jobs, was inspired by a man who times races at a Hollywood horse track. "They were lovely, wonderful people, just women who live in the community and wanted to do something to help out."

Anyone who is interested in learning more can view a video called "Science of snacking" that was filmed at the lab by the Discovery Channel at http://discoverychannel.ca/science/gastronomy/video/video10.shtml

For more news from the Manhattan Mercury, go to http://www.themercury.com

This article was posted on Tuesday, October 10, 2006, and is filed under College News, Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.