Years ago, when I was in business school, some people from Arthur D. Little came and spoke to one of my classes. The folks that came were from some sort of olfactory division which, among other things, did consulting on what dog food should smell like. They told us that the aroma of dog food is intended for the human wielding the can opener, not for the dog.
Next time I was at my mother's, I tested the hypothesis. When I opened a can of Alpo beef stew for Grimbald - which did actually smell like yummy beef stew - I took a bite. Blah. Blech. No flavor whatsoever. At least not to me. Grimbald didn't mind - he just wolfed it down. (While I was at it, I also took a bite of a DogBone biscuit. Again, no taste and this time I nearly broke a tooth.)
I thought of this when I saw an article in The New York Times on Cadbury's New Jersey Center of Excellence, which has in its employ a number of professional gum chewers.
I'm not a major gum chewer, but I've chewed plenty over the years.
As a kid, my favorite was Beechnut Peppermint, the one that came in the yellow wrapper. It was what my father chewed, and he would regularly split a stick in two or three - depending on how many kids he was divvy it up among - for us to share.
Beechnut was also the gum that advertised on the Saturday night edition of American Bandstand, which - if I've got this memory straight - was a straight-up concert, rather than a dance party like the daily show. In any case, I remember watching all those ultra cool teenagers in the audience clapping and chanting, "Who chews Beechnut spearmint gum? We chew Beechnut spearmint gum."
(It was a kinder, gentler era.)
Once I became a gum purchaser on my own nickel, I favored Teaberry, Dentyne, and - for a ghastly while - Juicy Fruit.
For a while, I pledged allegiance to Beechnut Stripes, the sour-fruit gum. ("Yipes. Stripes. Beechnut's got it. Yipes. Stripes. Beechnut gum. Yipes. Stripes. Five fruity flavors. Get Beechnut fruit-striped gum.")
(It was a kinder, gentler era.)
Sometimes I chewed Wrigley's. Sometimes I chewed Chiclets. Sometimes I chewed Bazooka, which had the major benefit that you could blow bubbles with it, not to mention that you got to make fun of the hopelessly outdated Bazooka Joe cartoons that hadn't changed since the Spanky and Our Gang era. Nobody that I know of actually chewed the flat, brittle gum that came with Topps baseball cards. You could split your lip on a shard, plus it had a weird taste.
Now, on the rare occasion I buy gum, it tends to be Trident.
But nobody pays me to chew it, which is unlike the folks at the Cadbury Schweppes Sciences and Technology Center who test out new product ideas.
While it might seem that being a gum tester is as simple as, say, chewing gum and walking at the same time, apparently only 10 percent of the US population
...have palates discriminating enough to distinguish between strawberry flavors that are, say, green, gritty or jammy and nearly 70 other ingredients in a typical piece of Bubblicious, Dentyne or Trident. Tasters must also succinctly convey their findings and resist being swayed by their colleagues’ opinions.
Hundreds of people apply for jobs as testers, and the few that pass the rigorous screening process have "undergo six months of training to learn the scales, terminology and measurement techniques used to evaluate products." The tasters now working at Cadbury include retirees, students, artists, and moms.
And make no mistake: this is serious business. The gum, mint, and breath freshener market is worth over $5 billion. Chew on that, why don't you?
And why all this attention to taste? Because, unlike other foods where nutrition factors in, with gum it's all about the flavor.
And that flavor is a lot mightier than it once was:
“Today’s gums were not what they used to be,” said Maura Titone, the sensory support leader who runs another group of panelists. “Ten years ago, we didn’t chew for 30 minutes. Now you can chew that long because there is better flavor technology.”
Among the flavors the testers have tested: menthol and pina colada. Be on the lookout!