The scientist who decided what you’ll eat and whether you’ll like it
Rose Marie Pangborn has almost certainly decided what you’re going to eat today. Possibly it’ll be a soda. Maybe it will be potato chips. It could be some candy. Whatever it was, her work made it possible to understand what you’ll taste, and how much you’ll like it.
Rose Marie Valdes Pangborn was born in 1932, when food science was mostly concerned with not poisoning people. She wound her way through New Mexico State University and Iowa State University before finally teaching at UC Davis - where her academic career really took off. She directed hundreds of grad students, taught one of the university’s most work-intensive classes to many hundred more undergraduates, and published over 180 papers. The subject of all that teaching and research? You’re probably nibbling on it right now. Pangborn was one of the first sensory researchers, to precisely measure a person’s responses to the food they eat.
The idea of such researchers conjures up images of tedious and cynical focus groups for a new line of soups marketed as “home style,” or the carefully edited taste tests shown in television commercials. Although Pangborn’s kind of research is worth a lot of money to companies, Pangborn’s interest was scholarly. Despite the bad press, the subject needs scholarly analysis. No one quibbles with the idea that it’s academically important to measure when a person first consciously or unconsciously responds to light, to pain, or to sound. It should be the same to measure a person’s first response to salt, or to sweet. If anything, as Pangborn discovered, the measuring of taste is a lot more complicated than the perception of light or sound.
One of the common themes running through Pangborn’s many papers is how taste is not an absolute, but depends on many different factors. She measured how body weight related to a person’s experience of milk fats. She tested how color affects a person’s experience of sweets - people tend to prefer blue and hate yellow-green. Most of all she related how a person’s regular diet caused them to react to new foods. Did someone who habitually tasted wine perceive a new kind of wine as more or less astringent than an infrequent drinker? How did someone who was accustomed to eating fats and sweets react to lemonade and milk fat compared to someone who rarely ate them? The data she got showed how complicated biochemistry and perception can be. In one paper she describes testing how regular sodium intake affects a person’s experience of salt. When salt was added to water, high-intake people recognized it first. In tomato juice, low-intake people noticed it first. Low-intake people added less salt to their food, but didn’t generally recognize when more was added. She concluded that showing that a person noticed, or liked, salt in one solution did not guarantee a better response when adding salt across the board. (She added, a little bit testily, that they needed to develop a better process to verify the salt intake of their subjects.)
Sadly, Pangborn died in 1990, but she left behind a science - sensory analysis - that she helped shape throughout its infancy. The Association for Chemoreception Sciences, which she co-founded, and the Sensory Reception Scholarship Fund, which she established, both continue to shape the science of sensory perception. Although few people will read their research, we all undoubtedly have tasted it.