Inside the Surprisingly Delicious World of Cat Food Taste Testing
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