Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Great Taste Testing Potluck

Sunday night Jonathan and I held a Taste Testing Potluck Party in lieu of our usual 3-4 course Sunday open house dinner. All guests were asked to bring four brands of a product for double blind taste test comparisons by the group.

To facilitate the double blind study, I had each guest bring their selections in identical containers with labels for each item denoting the brand. Once at my place, I moved the labels to the bottom of each container (so that they were now hidden), and then asked another guest to move the containers (without looking at the bottoms) to the dining room table. The guest helping with this task laid out the products in a neat row across the table and then we slapped down blank post it notes in front of each item for guests to record their name and rating (rated as compared to the other items of the same variety on the table).

Products we tested and brands are shown below. Results follow under the listing.

1. Kettle style potato chips, 'Salt and Vinegar' flavor
Kettle, Lay's, Cape Cod, Utz

2. Beef hot dogs
Hebrew National, Nathan's, Ball Park, Giant (store brand)

3. Chocolate chip cookies
Harris Teeter, Chips A'hoy, and two additional brands that I've failed to remember

4. Canned tuna fish
Wild Harvest, Target (store brand), Bumble Bee, Starkist, Wal-Mart (store brand)

5. Mild salsa
Pace, Tostitos, Chi-Chi's, Grande

6. Creamy peanut butter
Giant (store brand), Planters, Skippy, Jif

After everyone had tasted and rated, we did the big reveal.

By far the most shocking result for the entire group (10 taste testers) was the unanimous win for Lay's in the kettle chip category.

For the potato chips, all tasters rated Kettle, Cape Cod, and Utz fairly equal. Lay's brand was a clear stand out in excellence - tasters noted the chips were the crispiest with a pleasing crunch and had the best potato flavor. It wasn't even close - if the chips were racing in a 5k, Lay's crossed the finish line before the other poor chips made it past the first mile. Everyone assumed the winning chip must be Cape Cod (because the brand's entire image is built around their kettle chips) and were truly floored to discover it was Lay's. Given that Lay's is not only more affordable but the better tasting product and yet not well known on the potato chip circuit as a star in the kettle chip variety, we all agreed they should launch a national ad campaign involving taste testing to promote the brand strength (Are you listening Frito Lay marketers?).

In the hot dog competition, most assumed that the winning hot dog (9 of 10 votes) must have been Ball Park given it's reputation as the "beefiest" hot dog. (here we go again with these preconceived ideas that must have been planted in our mind by advertising). Surprised gasps (I kid you not- one member asked if this was some sort of hidden camera show or a trick) could be heard all around the room during the big reveal when the winner was discovered to be Giant (an affordable store brand).   

Harris Teeter was the unanimous winner for the cookies and Chips Ahoy was rated dead last. The other two varieties were given "average" and "meh" ratings and failed to leave an impression on me (hence I can't even remember their brand names). The Harris Teeter cookies tasted very close to homemade Toll House cookies and were the only cookie to have the chocolate chips begin to melt at room temperature (desirable behavior) which was a testament to their freshness.

I'm not a fan of canned tuna (prefer Starkist vacuum pouch), but of the canned varieties tested I preferred Wild Harvest, as did most guests (a few preferred Bumble Bee). The Wal-Mart variety was the worst (a strange "plastic" taste) and the Bumble Bee brand smelled and tested the most "fishy".

The salsa testing results were a bit more balanced that the rest of the products. The winner (Chi Chi's) won by just a vote or two, with the taster votes spread pretty equally among the brands. I guess salsa variety is a very personal preference and it must be hard for product developers to target the mass audience. This tasting proved valuable for me because I've always purchased Tostitos (I have no idea why we defaulted to Tostitos) when buying salsa in a jar and so I'd never even tried Chi Chi's prior to the tasting event. Given that I rated Chi Chi's the best, we will now be a Chi Chi's salsa household.

The peanut butter testing results were also fairly balanced in terms of brand preference, with Skippy winning the taste testing by a handful of votes. My own ratings for this product surprised and disappointed me (and Jon has been holding it over my head giddy ever since). Since childhood (when my mom lovingly made me PB&J sandwiches with it), I've been a Jif fan. A fanatic Jif fan in fact. I am absolutely devoted to Jif and have refused for 16 years to let my husband bring ANY OTHER brand into our home. It was that important to me. 'Choosy Moms Choose Jif' and all that. Jif is about family and love and a whole bunch of things for me (excellent brainwashing Jif marketing team!). I was convinced to the core of my being that Jif is the best and never ever questioned this closely held belief. And to find out that I actually prefer Skippy (it was creamier and presented an overall better taste and finish despite that Jif had a more intense peanut flavor) just shook my world. Seriously! I have been wondering out loud since Sunday what other beliefs am I so firmly committed to that might also be wrong? So the next time we go grocery shopping we will buy Skippy (I could not handle the cognitive dissonance of continuing to purchase Jif just because I have some sort of longstanding emotional attachment to the brand and a need to hold onto ideas long cherished) but I will cry a little inside.







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