Matthew is a 24-year-old freelance illustrator and a former professional “sensory panelist” for a frozen foods company. We recently talked about his experience eating french fries and other frozen fried foods for four hours a day, three days a week over the course of eight months. “I’d come home with huge blisters in my mouth from the salt,” Matthew said. He earned $4,200.
Mike: How did you get this job in the first place?
Matthew: I do freelance art, but in order to stay afloat I have to take odd jobs whenever my cash flow is low. I was browsing my college’s alumni job board, and a temp agency had posted an ad titled, “Would you love to eat food for a living?” and I figured it was worth a shot. I applied, and after an initial interview at the temp agency, I was invited to go down to the company’s headquarters for further testing.
Mike: What is the application process like for this?
Matthew: The first application was all questions about your history with food: “How many times do you eat fast food a month?” “Describe the last great meal you ate.” “How would you describe mayonnaise to someone who has never tasted mayonnaise?”
Mike: How would you describe mayonnaise to someone?
Matthew: I think I said “eggy, creamy notes, vinegar tang.” I wowed them.
Mike: I believe it!
Matthew: And for the second interview they put us in this long hallway-shaped room with special sensory lights that show the full spectrum of the rainbow. Every shadow has RGBV, it was sort of bizarre. In the room there is a long desk with dividers, and in each divider there is a sliding door and a light switch, and they gave us trays of different taste solutions, and asked us to identify which was which. When we were done with a test you’d hit a light switch and a new tray would appear from through the window—salt solutions that you’d put on a scale, bitter solutions, etc. It had a nice dystopian future sort of feeling.
Mike: So it was mostly, “What do these mystery liquids taste like?”
Matthew: Some of them were just basic tastes, salt, sour, and bitter. Other solutions had different flavorings or spices and we had to identify them and give food associations: anise, orange, lemon, cherry, etc.
Mike: You passed the test, obviously.
Mike: What came next?
Matthew: Well they offered me the job, and I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic—but figured it would be an interesting experience. I was offered the position, with three months of training at a lower pay rate.
Mike: What was the offer, and what was the pay rate?
Matthew: Three days a week for 4-6 hours a day at 12 dollars an hour, minus taxes. And once the panel finished training the pay rose to $15.75 an hour.
Mike: They deducted your pay to train you at first?
Matthew: Basically! I think they figured there would be a number of panelists leaving. I’m not sure about the logic. It started with 20 panelists, and by the time I left there were 12. After several weeks of training we met with the temp agency and asked for a raise in pay, and it was raised to $12.75 an hour and $16.50 an hour once we finished training, a big win.
Mike: What did you have to do in training?
Matthew: A sensory research company sent a training team to the headquarters to teach us the basics. It was broken up into three different sections, two that focused on the taste of food, and a final section focusing on the texture of food. We were taught a trade-secret flavor intensity scale that we used as a metric to judge all other foods against. At the low end is oil, and at the high end is a strong fruit juice.
Mike: So you were trained to distinguish the taste of food on a specific scale.
Matthew: Yes, the main goal of the scale was to be able to objectively rate foods numerically. The oil would be a 2, the fruit juice a 10, and then a whole number of other foods in between. You would say, “This piece of cheddar cheese is an 8, higher than the orange juice, not as strong as the cranberry juice.”
Mike: Were there people who the company told, “You have bad taste, you need to leave this program?”
Matthew: Yes! Exactly. We would all have to compare our numbers and get them as close as possible, and inevitably there were conflicts. There was one woman, who would get really upset, and shout at us when she disagreed. There was lots of eye rolling and tense moments. And as the training got more complex it became harder and harder to agree on numbers. We’d be eating slices of pizza, and trying to agree exactly how many points to give each element and have hour long arguments about whether the flavor of the pepperoni was coming from the spices, the pepperoncini, or the various meat aromatics.
Mike: Was it fun?
Matthew: It was nuts, but almost fun. It had a bit of a summer camp vibe, since we’d all be stuck in a room together eating frozen foods all day. The diversity of the group was pretty interesting too: lots of different ages, backgrounds, and reasons for being there. So we all bonded over the communal hell.
Mike: Okay, so you’ve trained. And they tell you you’re ready—then it’s nothing but french fries?
Matthew: Well, after training we took a test to see how closely our number aligned with seasoned sensory-panelists. And we failed miserably, but time and budget constraints forced us to begin work on their actual products. And then, yes-mostly french fries, but also frozen Chinese food, jalapeño poppers, and a bunch of other consumer frozen foods.
Mike: So you were doing this for four hours each day you worked How much of the time was actually spent eating?
Matthew: About 50 to 75 percent of the time we’d be eating. And for each attribute you would have to give a number, and there were anywhere from 50-100 attributes on each ballot. So you’d be taking large bites, swishing them around in your mouth trying to cover all the attributes, and then spit them out.
Mike: Did you eat any of it?
Matthew: Yeah, a bit too much of it. It’s very hard to spit out fried food. The oil pools in your mouth and it takes a lot of gargling to get it out. And we’d be doing 8-15 products a day, so to save time you’d end up swallowing some of it. There were countless hours with mushed up potatoes swirling around your mouth.
Mike: Was this enjoyable at any point? It sounds like torture to me.
Matthew: I liked curly fry day for a while! Those were hard to resist. But after a while it became pretty torturous. I don’t order french fries at restaurants unless they’re hand cut now. I can spot a french fry from the company from a mile away.
Mike: Are you like that with fried foods in general now?
Matthew: I’d come home with huge blisters in my mouth from the salt. Yeah, fried food doesn’t have the same appeal anymore. And the other amazing thing is seeing the whole world behind literally every product we consume. Every aspect of the foods, taste, appearance, texture, is so insanely focus grouped and tested. Every major food company has a similar testing process.
Mike: Does this mean you were eating many different versions of the same curly fry?
Matthew: Yes, there’d be slight variations in spices, in cooking time, in the kind of potato. We’d test them at different intervals to see how the taste changed once they were taken out of the fryer, or how micro-waving them would affect their texture. One aromatic that was fun to pick out was “cardboard”—an actual aromatic on the ballot—and to compare we had cups of water with brown paper towels in them.
Oh, and another weird thing I learned: To cut corners with cheese products companies sometimes use the acids from cheese production instead of the more expensive cheese products, and these acids are basically bile from different animals (a food scientist might have a more nuanced view). So sometimes we’d be spitting out these inexpensive cheese products all day, and your mouth would just be full of this vomit bile taste.
Mike: Oh god.
Matthew: Haha. Hard-hitting exposé!
Mike: So this was a contract job—did you end up quitting, or did you let your contract run and decide not to renew?
Matthew: They asked us to stay for two years, but there weren’t any incentives in place to make us stay. A lot of panelists were having dental health problems, and health problems, and I thought it would be best to quit. It was hard to stay at a job that was actively hurting me.
Mike: Wow, two years.
Matthew: Yeah, with a 50-cent pay raise each year.
Mike: When was the day you figured you had enough?
Matthew: It was gradual. But one day they had a large Christmas party for all the corporate employees, but didn’t invite us. Instead they cooked up a line of their frozen pizzas for us in the basement since we weren’t “real employees.” And that scenario was repeated several times.
Mike: That is … wow.
Matthew: It was very strange! It would only have taken a few gestures of goodwill to keep all the panelists there for two years. But last I heard they are looking for new panelists.
Mike: And you’re trained! So you could do it again if you wanted.
Matthew: I have a framed certificate stating that I’m a “trained sensory panelist” with a seal and everything! But it’s only good for potatoes.
Mike: Do you think you’d do this again, or recommend it to someone to do?
Matthew: I enjoyed seeing an absurd premise through to its end, but I wouldn’t leap at the chance to do it again. I think I got off easy though, some people taste dog food and fish oil for a living, which makes all my complaints seem frivolous.
Mike: There are many circles of food tasting hell it seems!
Matthew: I like to imagine them as I fall asleep. It just blows my mind that this is a job.
Mike: Did you find another side gig to take its place?
Matthew: Yeah, archiving old photographs for a local newspaper! That should make me the same amount of money in two months.
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