By Chow-Ming Lee, Ph.D.
Global Consumer Sensory Lead – Monsanto Vegetable Seeds Division
Walking down the produce aisle, you likely pick your fruits and vegetables largely based on visual appeal. The color, shape and size all play a role in whether you decide to purchase a certain fruit or vegetable, but ultimately great taste is what will encourage you to buy the produce again. My job at Monsanto is to study the science behind how senses influence consumer preference.
As a sensory scientist, or taste scientist, I work closely with consumers to study their perceptions of fruits and vegetables. These perceptions are then used to shape how we breed for better flavor, texture, visual appeal and overall quality. You probably don’t need a sensory scientist to tell you that consumers will eat more produce if it looks and tastes good, as many studies have shown. At Monsanto, our goal is to breed better produce that will fill the plates of consumers around the world. To get there, we conduct a lot of taste testing.
Currently at our breeding facility in Woodland, California, we are growing roughly 100 varieties of tomatoes and 60 varieties of melons. Once the produce is harvested, we will collaborate with trained taste testers (another very cool job), who are screened on their ability to evaluate produce taste and texture. Trained panelists are essential because of their objectivity – they can evaluate different sensory attributes without the bias of personal preference.
In addition to the trained panel, we have roughly 150 consumers evaluate the same produce samples. When recruiting consumers for a taste test, it is important that they would typically eat the specific food that we are testing. This allows them to notice differences in taste, appearance and smell. In the past three years, we have conducted more than 150 taste tests to develop an understanding of the positive and negative attributes of each food. A few of these attributes include the flavor of a tomato, bitterness in lettuce and broccoli, and texture of melons.
The combined findings are then shared with breeders, who use traditional breeding to develop vegetable seeds based on consumer preferences. But, the work does not end there. Once a variety has the appropriate sensory qualities, we assess if the vegetable will perform well in various climates and areas. After passing our many, many tests, the vegetable seeds are then sold to seed distributors and planted in fields and greenhouses across the United States and around the world.
As National Nutrition Month draws to a close, I encourage you to conduct your own produce taste test and explore different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Understanding your produce preferences will help you not only eat your vegetables, but also enjoy your vegetables!