Folks who think they have good taste don't know the half of it. A few weeks ago I visited the McCormick Technical Innovation Center in Hunt Valley, Md., where the spice and flavoring company conducts research. Food editors went through an abbreviated version of the training session given to the company's taste-testers, and we learned how all our senses are involved in flavor perception.

Looks are a factor — when people go to the grocery store and look for bright-colored fruit without any blemishes, they expect it will taste better. To demonstrate how appearance can be deceptive, we tried to guess the flavor of colored candies. The orange-colored one (which many thought was also orange-flavored) was actually strawberry, and a green candy (expected to be lime) was actually orange-flavored. So the taste-testers work under red lights to avoid being biased by a product's color or appearance.

Texture also makes a difference — we may prefer a crunchy or smooth feeling in our mouth.

To show us how a product's aroma influences taste, we plugged our noses and drank a bay leaf-flavored liquid. We couldn't taste anything at all. When we unplugged our noses, we caught the herb's aromatics, or volatile oils, through our nasal area, and we suddenly could taste the strong flavor. (Another example: Notice how your sense of taste diminishes when you've got a cold?)

In taste-testing, you also have to be aware of adaptation to fragrance. This is what happens when you put on a little cologne in the morning, and pretty soon you're used to it and don't realize it's so strong. The McCormick people say it takes two to six seconds to adapt to a smell. Just as one takes a sip of water to "cleanse the palate," the taste-testers cleanse their sense of smell by sniffing at the back of their hand.

To show us how many parts, or "components," actually make up a flavor, we tasted all the individual components that make up a strawberry:

— A cheesy, goaty note

— Dairy component

— Green berry

— Woody flavor of the seeds

— Syrupy sweet hint

Alone, they were pretty strange, but combined they made up a nice, fruity flavor. It gave me a better idea of why some processed foods taste strange. Maybe chemists fiddled around with the flavor and added too much of the green berry note to a powdered drink mix, or too much woody hint to a syrup, and ended up with a "fake" flavor or a weird aftertaste.

We smelled and tasted cinnamon-flavored applesauce to see what components we could detect. We identified what the McCormick folks called "cinnamic aldehyde," (we called it "Red Hots candy," a woody note and a musty factor, which one taster described as a "180-year-old basement."

Cinnamon from Vietnam has more of the "Red Hots" component than does cinnamon grown in Sumatra.

In tasting flavor-coated potato chips, we found that you can't get rid of bitterness by tasting something sweet. Salt does a better job of covering bitter flavor. Years ago, taste-testers hated sourness, but now "extreme" flavors are in.

All this information helps guide McCormick's product development. If the company is developing a chicken gravy mix, taste-testers first need to understand what key flavor characteristics are needed in order to evaluate the product. They don't just go in and say, "This tastes good and that tastes bad" without having some basis for why.

In a 1998 Food Marketing Institute survey, consumers ranked taste as the top factor in selecting foods. So getting the right combination to tempt your taste buds is critical to a food manufacturer's success.


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com