How do you make sure a French Fry tastes the same in Alaska as it does in Alabama? Meet the scientist who’s made it her passion.
"The real beauty of sensory evaluation is that it gives us a 'snapshot' of the quality of our food."
Barbara Booth, Director of Sensory Science, Quality Systems, U.S. Supply Chain Management
Barbara Booth is McDonald’s Director of Sensory Science, Quality Systems, U.S. Supply Chain Management. She has served as the Chair of the American Society of Testing and Materials, Sensory Committee, which is a Global Organization of Sensory Professionals, and is a contributing author on several patents and publications in her field. She currently leads the Quality Center for McDonald’s North America. We met with her at the McDonald’s Sensory Evaluation Center.
What exactly is sensory science?
In simple terms, it’s the evaluation of the sensory properties of food: its appearance, texture, aroma, taste, and even the sound it makes when you bite into it.
Why does McDonald’s need sensory evaluation?
We have to make sure we’re consistent with the quality and taste of the food we serve. Not just from Alaska to Alabama, but from Alaska to Australia. We have approximately 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. alone!
That sounds like a big challenge! How do you make sure the Big Mac tastes the same all over the world?
We created McDonald’s Global Sensory Scoring method, which is a system we use around the world to make sure our products are up to our high standards. We evaluate qualities like taste and texture to make sure that an item’s characteristics are within a certain specified range. When it’s right, we say: ”It meets our Gold Standard. It’s McDonald’s Quality.”
What’s the Gold Standard?
It’s when we put the sensory experience into words. Every single menu item, from our World Famous Fries to the Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait, has a “taste profile.” That’s basically a description of each of our Menu offerings – how it should look, taste, smell, feel and sound. It’s a combination of an item’s ingredients, its preparation and the equipment used to prepare it – resulting in the Sensory Experience of tasting that food.
So what makes the perfect French Fry?
Well, first you have to look at it. It should be a bright, light natural golden brown color. It has to have that wonderful aroma, and you want that crisp, tender bite – when you bite into it, you need to hear a “delicate crispness” – like walking on snow! It needs to be fluffy and steaming on the inside just like when you open your baked potato on Thanksgiving. It’s that signature taste of fresh cooked potato, light tasting oil and just the right amount of salt. When it’s right, you get that “aha” moment!
We hear there’s a good story around the cooking oil you use for the fries.
There is! McDonald’s had been cooking fries in a vegetable oil blend since the 1980’s, but we wanted to make a change to a Canola oil blend which would give us the ability to serve French Fries and Hash Browns with 0 grams trans fat per serving. Of course, we also wanted to make sure the fries looked and tasted as close as possible to the original, so we tested 18 different varieties of oil in more than 50 blends until we found the ideal one. We began using our Canola oil blend in restaurants in the summer of 2006, and the rest is history! [Ed. Note: All McDonald’s U.S. Restaurants now use a Canola oil blend, serving foods with 0 grams trans fat per serving.]
What happens here at the Sensory Evaluation Center?
We have a section here where we test new kitchen equipment, like toasters, ovens and fryers for the restaurants. We also train our Suppliers and staff on the quality characteristics of all of our food. That includes production managers, operators, even people on the line. Their job is so vital! They’re making food for your kids and mine, and we work together with our suppliers to incorporate Sensory into their strong Quality Control Programs.
There’s also the Sensory Evaluation Room, a very high tech controlled environment where we evaluate and taste test our menu items. The room has what we call “positive pressure” for rapid airflow turnover, which means there’s basically no smell in the atmosphere. We also lower the shades for light consistency to evaluate appearance.
Who’s here at the Center today?
We actually have our potato suppliers with us right now. We meet with them 6 times a year. Our suppliers are great food companies with names you recognize from your grocery store: McCain Foods, ConAgra Lamb Weston and J.R. Simplot. They are all competitors, but here they all sit at the same table like one big family, with one goal: the perfect McDonald’s fry. It’s so important to do this in person, because you can’t eat a lab sheet!
There are fewer than 5,000 sensory professionals in your field worldwide. How did you get into it?
I was always interested in science. In college I studied education, biology, geology – a whole range of fields. I worked in the food industry and went to night school to get my degree in Chemistry. I wanted to know, what makes a rose smell like a rose? Why do we smell things? You may know something smells fruity, but what makes it smell like an orange versus a lemon? Why does meat change according to how we cook it? There’s such a big difference between grilling, boiling and frying; you get all these interesting and different flavors and textures.
It’s a fascinating area. Being able to do science, but with people, is perfect. I would hate to be alone in a lab with a test tube. I like to talk and I love to teach.
Are you allowed to tell us what’s in the Special Sauce?
I’m afraid not. What I can tell you is that it’s a full-bodied, flavorful sauce.
What does quality mean to you?
It means confidence. It means being able to put my faith into a company, knowing they’ll deliver the experience that I love time after time.
You’re a Quality Ambassador for McDonald’s. Can you tell us what that means?
It’s the opportunity to be a voice for McDonald’s, here and around the world. I’m charged with maintaining food quality standards. And to be honest, it’s what wakes me up each morning – knowing I’m involved in improving the way food is produced in the United States. I’m very proud to work for a company that puts this much care into quality.