Taste testing fruits and veggies

FORT PIERCE, Fla. - If you've enjoyed blueberry cobbler, blueberry muffins or just plain blueberries, you still have never tried them the way they're tried at the USDA laboratory.

Scientists in the sensory lab are studying the influence of a new, small, square chemical sanitizer the size of a postage stamp that is stuck on the inside of a plastic container. The sanitizer eliminates dangerous organisms and makes fruit last longer. 

"It kills anything on the fruit, so the fruit sitting in there is a lot safer than when we put it in there, as it sits," explained Research Microbiologist Jan Narciso.

Scientists are trying to fine-tune their work on the item.

"Does any of those storage treatment affect the firmness, the texture or the flavor of the fruit," said Research Plant Physiologist Anne Plotto.

Dozens of volunteering scientists from other labs in the building are extensively trained tester. It takes hours for them to learn how to use their palates to identify and rate specific levels of sweet, sour, fruit flavor and ripeness to make sure the technology doesn't harm the taste.

Separated from the preparation area, the sensory testing booth is a neutral environment. Lights, sounds and smells are blocked out so there is nothing to bias the taste buds. The light is red so the tester cannot distinguish small differences in color, so the taste is the focus.

The scientists use the information to tweak the product, then do another round of research until it is perfected.

"We are finding surprising benefits from the sanitizer, in that it made the fruit firmer, in addition to less decay," explained Research Leader and Supervisory Horticulturist Elizabeth Baldwin.

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