When you look at a bag of Doritos, you might think of that salty nacho cheese powder, hopelessly addictive when dusted on crunchy, triangular chips. What you’re less likely to think about is a group of scientists in white coats, surrounded by an array of high-tech lab equipment and testing 20 different variations of cheese powder.

According to Michael Moss’ February 2013 New York Times Magazine article, “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food,” Frito-Lay spends upwards of $30 million a year to run a research complex in Texas. Inside that complex, about 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians all work together to produce the perfect chip, exploring things like flavor, texture, mouth feel, aroma and crunch. The lab includes some highly specialized equipment that seems like the kind of fantastical contraptions you might expect from a Wonka-esque fantasyland and not necessarily from large, industrial-looking buildings just outside of Dallas. Case in point: a “$40,000 device that simulates a chewing mouth [to discover] the perfect break point.”

The devotion of this amount of money and resources to developing new food products is certainly not unique to Frito-Lay. Behind most of the familiar products in our pantries and refrigerators is a world of complex scientific exploration dedicated to discovering and producing what customers want, often before they even know what that is. The basic product development process begins with an idea for a new product or line extension that is then tested in small focus groups to try gauging what the public reaction will be.

“Sometimes it will just be a picture on a page to show people concepts,” explains Bill Loris, a former product developer for Kraft, who now works as a chemistry teacher at New Trier High School. “And sometimes it will be samples or prototypes of things to get some initial feedback. The product developers are usually very involved in this process, and sometimes even do it without the marketing team.”

With this information, product development scientists begin working in a space that is part-kitchen, part-lab, where blenders and mixing bowls meet beakers. They’re a lot like any good chef, considering culinary elements like flavor palate, mouth feel and aroma, relying on their peers for tasting and feedback. “At this point, product developers will start to have informal discussions with their colleagues,” says Loris. “Like, ‘Here, try this, what do you think? Is this too salty, is this not salty enough, is it the right color, is this the right texture?’” However, as their creations are produced for large scale manufacture, they also bring specific biological and chemical knowledge to the table in thinking about shelf life and microbiological stability. Once they have a workable prototype, they bring it to a pilot lab to see how their recipe holds up with larger equipment.

After scientists have gone through these initial testing stages and created some viable prototypes, marketing teams bring them to different cities across the country where blind taste tests with hundreds of people are performed. Based on this feedback, the scientists return to the labs to make adjustments. “At this point, if you’re doing, say, salad dressing, you’re going to make a 5,000 pound batch of salad dressing, because the way that equipment works is very different than the lab bench and the pilot plant,” explains Loris. “You have to see how those sorts of processes are going to affect the flavor, color and texture of the product, as well as give the manufacturing engineers some kind of idea of cost structures.” Only after a product has been tested on this large of a scale can it move on to active marketing. This entire process can take years, and frequently involves as many as 50 different prototypes through its various stages. “With a company like Kraft, they’re going to want it to be first in the market and make about $500 million of profit for it to be even be worth marketing,” Loris says.

With the stakes this high, an entire market of third party consulting for food engineering and optimization has arisen in order to more precisely understand customer preferences. In his article, Moss explains that these firms pay customers to “spend hours sitting in rooms where they feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to customers.” This significantly streamlines the initial testing stages that product developers typically go through, allowing computers to automatically dial new products with different ingredient combinations and predict customer reactions with great precision.

Howard Moskowitz, one of the most prominent food optimization consultants, saved Cadbury Schweppes millions of dollars when he discovered the bliss point (the maximum amount of enjoyment one experiences from a product based on the amount of a certain ingredient like sugar or fat) for the amount of Dr Pepper flavoring syrup was actually a “bliss range.” Customers could experience this from anywhere between 1.69 to 2 milliliters of syrup per bottle, which meant the company could reduce its syrup use by .31 milliliters without customers noticing a difference.

However, the work that product developers, marketing teams and food optimization consultants do to determine what customers want is not always as simple as asking them.
In a 2004 TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell explained that when focus groups were asked what they want in a coffee, the grand majority stated something like a “dark, rich, hearty roast.” In reality, blind tasting data shows that only about 25-27% of people actually desire this type of roast, with the majority of people preferring a “milkier, weaker coffee.” Asking customers the right questions and effectively interpreting their answers requires a certain psychological awareness. This awareness is often provided by psychologists in the company, but food scientists must also be attuned to it. Loris explains that when product developers sit in on focus groups about a product centered around convenience, there is a phrase that comes up that is known as “the kiss of death, and that is ‘Well, this would be great for camping.’ What that means is people are saying ‘This is something I can see being convenient, but it’s never something I would use at home.’” Understanding these kinds of cues and being able to adapt their scientific processes accordingly is key to success in a product developer’s line of work.

As major food companies continue to churn out new ideas and people become more dependent on processed food, it is difficult to predict the direction in which the future of processed food science will go. While many food scientists are researching ways to create better tasting, healthier alternatives (like using specialized starches to simulate fat in fat-free cream cheese), others are working specifically to make junk food products like Cheetos (which melt in your mouth, convincing your brain that you’re consuming fewer calories than you actually are) more addictive. Either way, they’re a fascinating example of the power of people to use science to innovate and design deliciousness.