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

Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ancient Poop Contains First Evidence of Parasites Described by Hippocrates
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati

The long-held mystery of Hippocrates and the parasitic worms has finally been solved, and it’s all thanks to a few samples of ancient poop.

Researchers don’t know much about the parasites that plagued the Greeks thousands of years ago, and what they do know is largely from the Hippocratic Corpus, the medical texts that the father of medicine and his students put together between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Modern historians have spent years trying to figure out which diseases and parasites Hippocrates and his followers were referring to in their writing, relying solely on their descriptions to guess at what ailments the ancient Greeks might have suffered from. Now, they finally have concrete evidence of the existence of some of the intestinal worms Hippocrates mentioned, Helmins strongyle and Ascaris.

As part of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an international group of researchers analyzed the ancient remains of feces in 25 prehistoric burials on the Greek island of Kea to determine what parasites the people were carrying when they died. Using microscopes, they looked at the soil (formed by the decomposed poop) found on the pelvic bones of skeletons dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze, and Roman periods.

A roundworm egg under the microscope
A roundworm egg

Around 16 percent of the burials they studied contained evidence of parasites. In these ancient fecal samples, they found the eggs of two different parasitic species. In the soil taken from the skeletons dating back to the Neolithic period, they found whipworm eggs, and in the soil taken from the Bronze Age skeletons, roundworm.

With this information, researchers deduced that what Hippocrates called the Helmins strongyle worm was probably what modern doctors would call roundworm. The Ascaris worm probably referred to two different parasites, they conclude, known today as pinworm (which was not found in this analysis) and whipworm (pictured below).

Whipworm under a microscope
A whipworm egg

Though historians already hypothesized that Hippocrates's patients on Kea had roundworm, the Ascaris finding comes as a particular surprise. Previous research based solely on Hippocrates’s writing rather than physical evidence suggested that what he called Ascaris was probably a pinworm, and another worm he mentioned, Helmins plateia, was probably a tapeworm. But the current research didn’t turn up any evidence of either of those two worms. Instead of pinworm eggs, the researchers found whipworm, another worm that’s similarly small and round. (Pinworms may very well have existed in ancient Greece, the researchers caution, since evidence of their fragile eggs could easily have been lost to time.) The soil analysis has already changed what we know about the intestinal woes of the ancient Greeks of Kea.

More importantly, this study provides the earliest evidence of ancient Greece’s parasitic worm population, proving yet again that ancient poop is one of the world’s most important scientific resources.

Arctic Temperatures are Rising So Fast, They're Confusing the Hell Out of Computers

This past year was a brutal one for northern Alaska, which saw temperatures that soared above what was normal month after month. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the numbers from the weather station at Utqiaġvik, Alaska. That's because the recent heat was so unusual for the area that computers marked the data as incorrect and failed to report it for the entirety of 2017, leaving a hole in the records of the Climate Monitoring group at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), according to the Huffington Post.

The weather station in the northernmost tip of Alaska has been measuring temperatures for nearly a century. A computer system there is programed to recognize if the data has been influenced by artificial forces: Perhaps one of the instruments isn't working correctly, or something is making the immediate area unnaturally hot or cold. In these cases, the computer edits out the anomalies so they don't affect the rest of the data.

But climate change has complicated this failsafe. Temperatures have been so abnormally high that the Utqiaġvik station erroneously removed all its data for 2017 and part of 2016. A look at the region's weather history explains why the computers might have sensed a mistake: The average yearly temperature for the era between 2000 and 2017 has gone up by 1.9°F from that of the era between 1979 and 1999. Break it down by month and the numbers are even more alarming: The average temperature increase is 7.8°F for October, 6.9°F for November, and 4.7°F for December.

"In the context of a changing climate, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet," Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch, wrote for The higher temperatures rise, the faster Arctic sea ice melts. Arctic sea ice acts as a mirror that reflects the Sun's rays back into space, and without that barrier, the sea absorbs more heat from the Sun and speeds up the warming process. “Utqiaġvik, as one of a precious few fairly long-term observing sites in the American Arctic, is often referenced as an embodiment of rapid Arctic change,” Arndt wrote.

As temperatures continue to grow faster than computers are used to, scientists will have to adjust their algorithms in response. The team at NCEI plans to have the Utqiaġvik station ready to record our changing climate once again within the next few months.

[h/t Huffington Post]


More from mental floss studios