Sensory Lab tests food items for clients

Nov 15th, 2012 | By | Category: 2012, Campus News, Issue, Nov. 15

Freshly tumbled in various salt mixtures, the chips sat ready to be crunched.

But these deep-fat-fried snacks were not to be consumed by crumbly handfuls during lunch or a boisterous tailgate. Instead, these chips were neatly lined up, two to a numbered plate, covered by plastic wrap and ready to be judged by a panel of volunteers.

“We are conducting an attribute rating,” said Julie Reiling, a product development and sensory consultant with UNL’s Food Processing Center. “We are asking people to give their opinions on taste, to rate the intensity of the salt.”

The Nov. 8 test was conducted in the UNL Sensory Lab, part of the Department of Food Sciences and located in rooms 47 and 49 in Filley Hall. The space is one of three sensory labs on East Campus. The Food Processing Center’s lab, which is run by Reiling, works primarily with private clients who want to complete small consumer panels on FDA approved spices and food additives. The lab is also used by students to learn about how to conduct and use sensory panels.

“Our lab is set up to do focused sensory panels,” said Reiling. “Physically, we have two sides to the lab, a panel side and a prep side. We offer eight booths and all the tests are computerized with touch screen monitors.

“With this set up, we can complete sensory panels on just about anything.”

The lab was remodeled in 2006-2007 under the leadership of Susan Cuppett, emeritus professor of Food Science and Technology. Cuppett is the previous director of the lab.

“When Dr. (Rolando) Flores became director of the Food Processing Center, he found funding to remodel the lab,” said Cuppett. “The space had started to show some wear and tear and Dr. Flores recognized that. We were able to gut and redesign the entire space. That’s also when we added the computers.”

Both Cuppett and Reiling said the lab’s reputation has grown primarily by word of mouth and positive feedback from clients.

“We don’t really have to advertise that we offer this service,” Reiling said. “We have a lot of repeat clients. And new clients almost always here about us through other clients.”

The lab is also available to faculty who wish to test food items.

Reiling said clients are primarily from outside of Nebraska and are interested in testing new ingredients being added to existing products. The Sensory Lab targets small to medium sized companies with 10 to 100 employees.

“Very large corporations have their own sensory departments,” said Reiling. “And other universities, like Arkansas and Kansas State, offer the same kind of sensory lab service that we do.”

On average, the Sensory Lab conducts a test panel once a month. The tests include a wide variety of products. All of the testing is done within oversight of UNL’s Institutional Review Board.

“One of the weirdest things I ever tested came from a company that was breading and battering candy bars and deep-fat frying them,” said Cuppett. “I thought that was pretty strange, but they were pretty good. Everyone loved them.”

And there’s also the other side of that taste coin Cuppett said, recalling a time a campus researcher tried to reclaim edible chicken meat leftover on bones and convert it into a breakfast sausage.

“That one was not too good,” Cuppett said. “And it was the only time we had a lot of people show up in the morning and none in the afternoon. I guess word go out.”

Reiling promised that, “nothing too horrible,” is ever tested in the lab. A promise she keeps by testing every product before a sensory panel is offered.

Tests take just a few minutes and are offered primarily in the morning and afternoon of a testing day. Volunteers who serve as panelists are mostly faculty, staff and students who sign up to participate. Reiling sends out email alerts about upcoming sensory panels and is always looking to extend her list of volunteers.

“We have some regular panelists but we’re always looking for new recruits,” said Reiling. “And you don’t have to participate in all of the panels, just those that you have time for or want to be part of.”

All volunteers receive a treat after taking part in a panel.

“There’s no training needed to take part,” said Reiling. “It’s actually a pretty easy and fun process for everyone involved.”

For more information on the Sensory Lab or how to volunteer, contact Reiling at

— Troy Fedderson, University Communications

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