SDSU wins Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest

Last month brought us the 2018 Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest, an annual event in which student sensory evaluators put their dairy expertise to the test with blind assessments of donated dairy products. The contest is one of the longest-running contests for sensory evaluation in the U.S., only having paused for each of the World Wars.

This year, the South Dakota State University (SDSU) Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge Team won the national championship. A total of 49 students from 15 U.S. universities participated.

Sensory evaluation is a field of science that focuses on how a person responds to a specific product or ingredient by analyzing their sensory reactions; meaning their sense of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. In the food industry, sensory evaluation is usually done in a private booth by an individual panelist, with the results of the entire panel aggregated into a report at the end.

The results are used to make decisions on when to send a product to the marketplace, or where a formulation can be adjusted to, say, get that warm chocolate chip cookie to have just the right combo of sweetness and saltiness.

It can take years for sensory evaluators to hone their skills to the professional level, and quality candidates are highly sought after. These candidates get their start early with competitions like the Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest.

As its name hints, the contest centers on six dairy products: beverage milk at 2% fat, Swiss-style strawberry yogurt, vanilla ice cream, cheddar cheese, sweet cream butter and cottage cheese.

Contest evaluators are college students at agricultural or science-focused community colleges, four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Students who judge the products compete in teams and individually, with rivalries between the top schools.

The sensory aspects being evaluated vary from product to product. In general, the students are looking for flavor, texture, visual, and olfactory defects. The numerical score they give each product is compared with a predetermined, “official” score — students accumulate points based on how far off they are from the official score. Much like golf, the student with the lowest score is victorious.

Other sensory evaluation tests include the triangle test, where the goal is to identify one product from a group of three that differs from the others; or ones that involve marking tallies on a score card, which are then run through statistic models to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between the products tested and a control.

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