All it takes is a slight twitch of the face to give Virginia Tech researchers the information they need to know how people feel about what they taste.
Tech’s food sensory evaluation laboratory is a state-of-the-art facility equipped with advanced software that analyzes people’s facial expressions to see how food makes them feel. It gives researchers a unique advantage in studying how foods and beverages might do in the commercial market, said Susan Duncan, a Tech food science and technology professor.
Inside the lab, which opened in 2014, trays with samples of foods and beverages are passed to test subjects in tiny booths who use a touch screen to classify how they feel when they taste something.
All the while, their faces are monitored for the slightest movement to reveal what they might be thinking subconsciously or to pick up on better ways to read emotions for future food sensing tests.
Slight lip lifts. Tiny forehead scrunches. Squinting eyes. The cameras at the food sensory lab pick it all up.
“This can happen over a series of microseconds,” Duncan said.
The lab also has a focus group room used to discuss things like how packaging makes people feel about a product.
How people feel about food is vitally important for an industry that is part of people’s lives every day, said Elizabeth Clark, a food science and technology graduate student who manages the lab.
“Food is very important in the intricacies of our lives,” she said. “It’s part of what sustains us, but it’s also part of our culture, too.”
That cultural link is part of the emotions that come from food. For example, Clark said work in the sensory lab has shown that chocolate milk causes more happy emotions than regular milk, meaning it’s more attractive for milk drinkers. That could be important for getting more milk into more school lunches.
Picking up on subtle reactions is helpful. So much of what people experience with food is neutral, and it’s not often that a food or drink will elicit a visceral reaction. In fact, Duncan said, a neutral response to a food sample is a good thing.
For example, one of the tests conducted in the sensory lab measured the impact of LED lighting on milk, postdoctoral researcher Aili Wang said.
Through focus group testing, Wang said she and a team of researchers were able to learn that milk tastes better when it’s exposed to lower LED lighting because it slows oxidation, which makes milk taste spoiled. She hopes that grocery stores can use that type of information to find better lighting options for dairy cases.
Those types of research results should have potential corporate partners drooling.
So far the lab has been used for a wide variety of projects, Duncan said. Conagra Brands provided seed funding for the lab and has helped develop techniques and applications to use software in advancing the sophistication of its own sensory testing.
Beer companies also have used the lab for sampling efforts. The overall strength of Tech’s food science department — particularly in fermentation — was cited by officials from Deschutes Brewery and Ballast Point Brewing Co. as a reason for moving to Southwest Virginia.
The food sensory lab — along with other work in Tech’s food science department — can have an impact on the New River Valley’s economic future, said Charlie Jewell, the executive director of Onward New River Valley, formerly known as the New River Valley Economic Development Alliance.
The food and beverage industry cluster is one targeted by Jewell as his group attempts to attract major employers and industries to the New River Valley. The food sensory lab is one asset he and other economic development leaders hope to use to attract the food industry.
“Pretty much any food or beverage company could leverage the food sensory lab,” Jewell said.
In late August, as Jewell toured state economic development officials around the New River Valley, they stopped at the food science department at Tech.
Tech economic development officials recognize the industry as one with potential in the area around Roanoke, Lynchburg and the New River Valley.
In the next five years the number of jobs in the food and beverage cluster, which includes jobs in agriculture and food processing, is anticipated to grow by almost 7 percent, according to a regional growth and diversification plan conducted by Tech’s Office of Economic Development for the state GO Virginia initiative, which laid out a five-year plan for economic development regionally across the state.
For students like senior J’Nai Phillips, the lab has already opened doors. Phillips credited student research she did as part of Wang’s milk lighting project for helping secure an internship at The Kellogg Co. over the summer.
And that work with the lab will continue to benefit her beyond college, she said.
“It’s just cool to see how this stuff works in the real world,” Phillips said.