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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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The Delicious Chemistry of Sushi
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iStock

The secret to sushi's delicious taste is invisible to the human eye. Chefs spend years training to properly prepare the Japanese culinary staple, which consists of fresh fish and seasoned rice, either served together or wrapped in seaweed. At its most elemental, as the American Chemistry Society's latest Reactions video explains below, the bite-sized morsels contain an assortment of compounds that, together, combine to form a perfectly balanced mix of savory and sweet. They include mannitol, iodine, and bromophenol, all of which provide a distinctive tang; and glutamate, which adds a savory, rich umami flavor (and turns into MSG when it's combined with a sodium ion).

Take a bite of science, and learn more fun facts about the Japanese culinary staple's long history and unique preparation method by watching the video below.

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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum.) These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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