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Inside the Surprisingly Delicious World of Cat Food Taste Testing

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Cat food is serious business. Taking underutilized and low-value raw materials like animal byproducts and turning them into high-value foods can be, not surprisingly, very lucrative. Along with other pet foods, cat food makes up a hefty portion of the international prepared foods market.

The crowns of the cat food kings are heavy, though. Their products have to be palatable and nutritious for cats, as well as convenient and economic for the owner. Accomplishing that first part isn’t easy when many of their customers are sensitive to even subtle flavor differences, very picky about their food, and can’t even verbalize what they think of the product.

Behavioral studies on cats can give the food producers a little feedback, but they’re often limited to very simple acceptance and preference tests that are time-consuming, complicated by variations among different individual cats and, in the end, not very data-rich. Facing these limitations in gauging the likes and dislikes of cat food’s end-users, brilliant minds in industry and academia put forth the idea of nixing four-legged taste testers in favor of two-legged ones.

The Truth About Cats and Humans

Yes, there are differences in cats’ and humans’ physiological and perceptual systems, but there are also some similarities, as well as experimental evidence that human sensory data could be useful in cat food formulation. Human taste tests could be done, sure – Simon Allison, a senior food technologist at UK retailer Marks & Spenser, has admitted that, by his own choice, he tastes all of the company’s products – but how? And would they do any more good than cat taste tests?

In 2007, Dr. Gary Pickering, currently a Professor of Biological Sciences and Psychology/Wine Science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, set out to develop a methodology for using human taste panels to assess canned cat food. The panel of taste testers was drawn from the staff and student population of Charles Sturt University-Riverina in Australia, where Pickering taught at the time, and screened with a battery of tasting exercises. In the last exercise, Pickering got down to the nitty gritty and brought out the cat food.

Let's Hear From Our Judges

The prospective panelists tasted three different canned cat foods and rated their “hedonic impression” (whether they liked or disliked it) on a 9-point scale. This helped to weed out people who were really grossed out over or hated eating the cat food and, hence, might have reduced motivation, concentration or reliability in the study. About 1/3 of the prospective panelists opted not to continue with the screening process, with dislike of the cat food being most common reason for withdrawing. (Shock!)

The final panel – consisting of 11 who apparently didn’t completely hate the act of eating cat food – rated samples of cat food meat chunks, gravies/gels and meat-gravy mixes over the course of six tasting sessions. They were first asked to describe the samples’ flavors and textures using a descriptor generation form provided by Pickering, resulting in a list of 119 flavor and 25 texture descriptors. That list was pared down to 18 flavor descriptors: sweet, sour, tuna, herbal, spicy, soy, salty, cereal, caramel, chicken, methionine, vegetable, offal-like, meaty, burnt, prawn, rancid and bitter. There were also four texture dimensions: hardness, chewiness, grittiness and viscosity. The panel then scored a range of cat food products for intensity of each of the flavors on the list and for “hedonic impression.”

These tastings, and the flavor attributes and intensity ratings they generated, allow for flavor profiles to be developed for individual cat food products. The finer details of the usefulness and limits of human taste testing of cat food still need to be worked out—for example, cats don’t have a sweet taste receptor, so the human detection and rating of that taste doesn’t do anyone any good. But the combination of these flavor profiles and the cat acceptance/preference studies already in use could enable faster, more economical ways of optimizing cat food flavor and texture and predicting the effects that any changes to the food might have on picky kitties.

Mikey Likes It (Slightly)!

While that practical application of the results is all well and good (go science!), the real take-away for me is this: Canned cat food apparently doesn’t taste as gross as it looks, smells and feels, and it’s for the strangest reasons. The average (mean) of all the panelists’ hedonic scores was 4.97 on the study’s 9-point scale, right between “neither like nor dislike” and “like slightly.” Not bad! Even more surprising is that positive, or “like,” scores were positively correlated with rancid, offal-like, burnt and bitter flavors, but negatively correlated with tuna and herbal flavors.

Reference: “Optimizing the sensory characteristics and acceptance of canned cat food: use of a human taste panel.” Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, Volume 93, Number 1, February 2009, pp. 52-60(9). Published online: February 2008. DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0396.2007.00778.x

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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