The room is bathed in eerie red light. A lone woman sits at a booth. There are no distracting sounds, no smells wafting in the air, no other people in sight.
Suddenly a sample of beef is handed through a hole in the wall. The woman sniffs it and puts a bite in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Then, abruptly, she spits it out in a cup.
It might sound like a meal in prison, but it's actually a typical workday for a professional taster, whose job is to make sure the foods on supermarket shelves are appetizing and consistent.
"These people are trained, just like you train athletes," said Fred Caporaso, who arranges tasting panels for companies as director of Chapman University's Sensory Evaluation Laboratory (search) in Orange, Calif. "You want someone with aptitude, whose tongue works a little bit better than average."
One such person is Godiva (search) taster Jennifer Koen, the company's director of innovations. Though Koen came to the position as a self-professed chocolate lover, she learned to pick up the confection's complexities when she was sent to "chocolate school" in Montreal and later trained on the job at Godiva.
Since tasting involves all the senses, Koen said she first looks at the chocolate to "make sure it has a good sheen and a nice shine." She also checks for bubbles and blemishes and analyzes the design for its aesthetic value.
The next step is to take quick "bunny sniffs" of the piece while cupping one hand over it so the scent doesn't escape.
"Eighty percent of taste is smell," Koen said. "You want to capture the aroma." The freshest chocolates have the most intense, rich smells.
Finally, she closes her eyes and takes a small bite of the piece — but it's not just any bite.
"You have to feel the bite as you take it," Koen said. "You want to move it around all areas of the mouth because there are different tastebuds in different areas of the mouth. You want to get sweet, sour and bitter, so you move it all around to get the full intensity of flavor."
The most complex chocolates are bursting with several different tastes, she said.
"Similar to wine, a chocolate piece often unfolds in different layers of flavor," said Koen. "You might start out with a cocoa hint, then get a hint of vanilla, then maybe a coffee or nut flavor and then a finish."
Tasters often do their jobs alone in sensory labs, with controlled lighting and air and no outside disturbances (though Koen does some of her tasting in boardrooms or her office, too). Professionals need to be discerning eaters who take their time with food, according to Caporaso.
"You want someone who is conscientious," he said. "It's a lot more than tasting. They're using all their senses."
Food and beverage companies need two kinds of tasters before their products hit the market.
The professionals are either outside contractors or internal food scientists, chefs and product developers trained to analyze flavor intensity, sweetness or bitterness, texture and product consistency. In-house tasters are often used because of convenience, their experience with that food and company secrecy. But they can become biased, which is why some businesses call on outsiders to do some tasting.
Consumer tasters are members of the general public who evaluate whether they love or hate a product, after the professionals have fine-tuned the formula.
Any one of them might be a "super taster" — with a particularly discerning palate. Super tasters have between twice and four times as many tastebuds on their tongues as the average person and are picky eaters, according to Caporaso.
"Sometimes the super tasters are a detriment because they're picking up these little nuances in the product that the average consumer can't detect," he said.
Eric Steinberger, 31, of New York has been told that he's likely a super taster. During a stint at a consulting company, a food scientist examined his tongue and informed him of his unknown talent. Steinberger, however, doesn't plan on using it professionally.
"That's not my idea of fun," he said. "Human tasters have to try a bunch of really random stuff. I'm such a picky eater, so why would I want a job where I'd need to eat all this food I don't like?"
Super tasters or not, professional eaters run the gamut with their salaries. Since most work in food science or product development, those who taste for a living can be entry-level employees earning between $30,000 and $60,000 or senior execs raking in six figures, according to industry insiders.
In any case, many live the good life in terms of what they get to try, like trained wine drinkers or Godiva's Koen.
"Savory tasting is what I've trained myself to do," said Hollingsworth, president of the Institute of Food Technologies (search), who would have to taste the meats under red lighting so she couldn't see how cooked or rare the samples were.
Generally, tasters are only used for about an hour a day total — often only for a few minutes at a time.
"You can't just sit down there for four or five hours at a time," said Caporaso, who has run panels for companies like Baskin-Robbins, Pfizer (when it had a food division), Nestle Carnation and Lipton. "You get fatigued."
To preserve her palate (and her stomach), Koen generally only tastes three different pieces of chocolate a day, usually when the company is developing a new product. She also samples competitors' chocolates.
But there are times when mass tastings with the chef chocolatiers are necessary — requiring Koen to taste as many as 50 pieces a day. After all that decadence, she usually takes a week-long respite from chocolate eating. But that doesn't mean she gets sick of it.
"You need to like chocolate to like this job. Luckily I do," Koen said. "Eating chocolate is a pleasure in life. It's like sex — you love it but sometimes you need a little break."
Not all tasting projects are as appealing as Godiva tasting, however. Some of Caporaso's product-testing requests were a little … unusual.
"I had a company that made a birth control product they wanted flavored," he said. "We tried a little bit of that, but it was challenging. Thank God that project went away fast."
He's also been asked to test dog food (for qualities like tartness, since "humans can give us an answer but the dog is just going to bark") and mushrooms.
"Everybody who's on that panel now looks at mushrooms very, very differently," Caporaso said. "You are no longer just a consumer after you go through that."
No matter what they make, food and beverage companies rely on tasters to ensure that their products come out just right.
"They need them to verify their products are the same today as a week ago and the same from plant to plant," Hollingsworth said. "A consumer wants to know that a package of Lays potato chips bought today in Phoenix tastes the same as the ones they bought yesterday in New York."