VICKERS LAB SPOTLIGHT
Professor Zata Vickers
What are you Driven to Discover?
I am driven to discover how we can increase people’s liking of healthy foods
What is the impact of your research in your field?
For many years my primary research focus has been on measuring people’s liking of foods. This includes examining the factors affecting food acceptability. Some of these factors are related to specific food attributes, such as sweetness, crispness, bitterness, moistness, or pungency. Other factors are related to the person doing the eating, such as the amount of saliva they produce,their prior experiences with a specific food, and their sensitivity to tastes and aromas. When I started this work I, like others in the field, thought liking was mostly a property of the food. Now, our view has shifted to thinking that liking depends more on factors related to the person doing the eating than on specific food attributes.
What drew you to your field of study?
So much of Food Science focuses on physical and biological features of food. Those features are grounded in chemistry, physics, and microbiology. Understanding and measuring those features are key for producing foods. But the most important aspect of a food to a company that sells it (or a cook that prepares it, or a person that might eat it) is whether people like it. That has to be measured using people.
For example. The sweetness of 10% sugar in water is diminished if some of the water is replaced by lemon juice, as it would be if you were making lemonade. Chemical measurements suggest the sugar concentration is about the same or a bit higher, so a chemical measurement of sugar can be a very poor predictor of sweetness. To know how sweet something is, you must use people as the measuring instruments. And, of course, no physical or chemical test can predict liking. Liking is more a property of the person eating the food than of the food itself.
What is your favorite research/lab tool and why?
My favorite research tools are the people participating in our taste tests. They are wonderfully complex and continually changing. To measure the sugar concentration chemically, you can use a test that gives the same result regardless of circumstances. For example, a chemical test will give you the same result whether you do the testing at 8:00 am or 9:00 pm, on a Tuesday or a Saturday, right after a meal, or right after a test sample with a much higher sugar concentration. But the sweetness ratings people provide depend on the sweetness of the last thing they ate, the amount of sweet things they typically eat, the number of points on the rating scale, the other attributes they might rate at the same time, whether they have been trained to use a calibrated scale, the other samples they are evaluating in the testing session, etc.
Liking ratings can also change over time. They can change within a 20 minute taste test, over a period of several weeks or years, or as someone’s experiences with the food change. So managing our research tools is always challenging.
Who are the members of your lab?
Jenna Brady and Lauren Wisdorf are both completing MS degrees this December. Loma Inamdar (pursuing an MS degree) and Myungwoo Kang (pursuing a Ph.D.) are both new to the lab this fall. Christine VanDongen is a fellow in the sensory center.
Are you working on any unique collaborations or projects?
Right now, we are working with George Annor to explore the influence of different processing technologies on the sensory properties of beer made from intermediate wheatgrass. We are also working with Baraem Ismail, testing the properties of pasta made from different varieties of Millet. We are working with Tonya Schoenfuss on the effects of different ingredients on the sensory attributes and acceptability of low sodium cheeses, and we are working with Ted Labuza on the sensory texture properties of almonds dried to different moisture contents. Jim Luby and Matt Clark, grape breeders from Horticulture, have asked us to study the sensory attributes of wines made from grapes that can survive Minnesota winters. Cindy Tong and Jim Luby, from the Department of Horticulture, are conducting several studies related to relating apple genetics to sensory crispness. Marla Reicks, Traci Mann, Joe Redden and Elton Mykerezi, are doing work on increasing children’s vegetable liking and consumption. Traci Mann, from the Department of Psychology, is measuring the impact of consuming foods on moods and emotions. Joe Redden, from the Carlson School, is studying the satiety produced by foods, and for examining what influences the variety of foods people eat. Roger Ruan, Chi Chen, Paul Chen, David Baumler, and Joellen Feirtag are examining the changes in sensory properties of foods processed by intense pulsed light.