Still, I was hesitant when I first walked into the National Food Lab -- I had no idea what I was getting into or if I would even enjoy the food. Testers are not informed beforehand what we will be tasting; we find out once we are in the testing room. Testers are given numbers, which become our names for the testing.
When I arrived, the receptionist handed me a survey with questions asking how much I like certain types of coffee, who does the grocery shopping in my household, and if I prefer store-bought coffee or brand name coffee. I told the truth, which is that I never drink coffee.
Ten to 20 people were with me in the waiting room, eager to be called in to take the test. We were asked to turn off our cell phones and not talk about the test to fellow tasters.
Once inside, we were asked to first smell and observe, then taste the coffee along with various types of creamers. Despite my distaste for coffee, I was thirsty, so I completed the test -- and received money in an envelope as a gratuity for being a food tester. What I soon learned is that there has been a growing demand for food testers over the years.
The National Food Lab, a food testing and consulting firm, began in Berkeley in 1976 because there was a need in the marketplace for research and development in the food and beverage industry. In late 2008, the lab moved to its current location in Livermore.
Food manufacturers for various products contact the National Food Lab and instruct it to hold food testing sessions to ensure that their products are palatable, even tasty. The sessions also test how to market the product and what would appeal to the consumer.
Anyone from a 5-year old boy to an 80-year old woman is eligible to taste test food or beverage products. Once individuals sign up to be testers either online at the National Food Lab website or by calling the firm, their information is stored in a large database.
"Our manufacturer clients have a specific criteria of who their market is for certain tests, in which we go through a screening process to determine eligibility," said Kevin Waters, president and CEO of the National Food Lab. "Some tests will require women ages 12-25 who are at a certain income level, while others require men ages 40-65 who make a certain amount of income per year."
The National Food Lab operates under confidential agreements and asks testers not to divulge information regarding the products, which include yogurt, fruit juices, frozen lasagna, coffee and fresh produce. Tests are administered by a team of consumer science majors and temporary workers who help give the evaluations. The end results of the food test go straight to the manufacturer and are not shared with the food testers.
Individuals are only allowed to be testers up to four times a year to allow for a diverse tester base. For their time and efforts, they are given cash, depending on the day's product. I've received from $30 to $60 for different testings, which took from one to two hours.
I have been a tester up to four times every year since 2010 and I love it. When I get an email about participating in a survey to see if I am eligible, I always take the opportunity. The product I taste is not always to my liking, but I always approach it professionally.
For information about becoming a food tester, visit www.thenfl.com or call the National Food Lab at 828-1440.