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Human Panel Judges Cat Food

By Kim Boatman

Human Panel Judges Cat Food

Professor Gary Pickering lectures about the nuances of flavors in wine, but one of his more recent tastings didn’t involve descriptions like “floral bouquet” or “fruity overtones.” Instead, participants talked about the tuna and prawn characteristics of the tested samples. That’s because they weren’t drinking wine -- they were sampling cat foods.

Cat food tastings for humans might at first seem bizarre, but Dr. Pickering’s work is quite serious. The chair and professor of biological sciences and wine science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, discovered that human testers rated cat food successfully, ultimately benefitting cat food consumers. Such edibles are designed solely for your feline’s unique nutritional needs, so Dr. Pickering’s research falls under the “it’s cool, but don’t try this at home” category.

Why use two-legged testers?
In a new Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition paper, Dr. Pickering explains the potential value of having people rate cat foods. For example, he believes it might enable manufacturers to understand why your cat favors certain foods. While manufacturers conduct trials to see what felines prefer, it’s difficult to know exactly which flavors or textures the kitties are responding to, he explains.

“Cats aren’t very good at vocalizing what they like or don’t like about cat foods,” says Dr. Pickering, who conducted the study in Australia before coming to Brock University. “The idea was that humans can quite clearly verbalize what it is. Humans can also rate the intensity of different characteristics in a particular food or beverage.”

The idea of people chowing down on kitty fare was met by intrigue and disbelief, says Dr. Pickering. About 30 percent of the participants dropped out, less than Dr. Pickering expected. The remaining tasters actually enjoyed the cat food more than he’d anticipated. Using a standard nine-point scale, the average score for the panel was 4.97. That placed the samples between “neither like nor dislike” and “like slightly” on the scale.

Hints of chicken and caramel
Testers rated the foods on 18 flavor attributes, including tuna, prawn, chicken, caramel, cereal, soy, burnt flavors, bitter and offaly, which is a blend of boiled and finely diced beef kidney and liver. They also evaluated textures, such as grittiness and chewiness.

“Those panelists who stayed were really into it, turning up for multiple sessions,’’ he says. “They were becoming quite proficient connoisseurs.”

But what those human tasters couldn’t do was replicate the way your cat perceives flavors. Dr. Pickering doesn’t presume that his human testers experienced the food in the same way your furry pal does. For example, cats have no sweet taste receptor, so sugary sensations are likely out of the feline picture.

The value of four-legged testers
Dr. Timothy J. Bowser, co-director of the Oklahoma State University Center for Pet and Animal Food Palatability Studies, says that while humans can play an important role in cat food palatability development, kitties themselves are essential to the process.

“Human input is sought first to evaluate odor, appearance, value, feel, etc.,” says Dr. Bowser. “But we haven’t ever asked anyone to taste cat or any other pet food. The pets tell us everything we need to know through preference testing methods that are almost identical to the methods used on human foods.”

“Getting the opinion directly from the pet is much more accurate than working indirectly through humans, in my opinion,” he adds.

Using the results
Dr. Pickering says the value of his recent work could lie in taking the results of the human testing and comparing them to results of cat testing on the same products. It might offer a shortcut for researchers, he says.

But how do you know what your cat will enjoy? “Fact is, cats like meat,” says Dr. Bowser. “We know that dogs really like the taste of entrails, but more cats like the muscle meat.”

Based on the research, keep in mind these considerations when choosing a food for your feline:

  • Your cat’s nutritional requirements Cat foods these days are tailored to suit your cat’s particular needs, whether your pal is a kitty, a senior or a feline with a health issue, such as fur ball problems.
  • Texture Some cats prefer flaky cat foods, others a pâté style. You can conduct your own taste test by providing small samples of each to your cat, or you can adjust a cat food by adding a bit of warm water to create more moistness, if that’s the way your cat enjoys dinner. Don’t be surprised if your cat changes preferences over time, says Dr. Bowser. “Cats can change their mind one day to the next.”
  • The dining environment Be aware of where and how your cat likes to eat. For instance, says Dr. Bowser, some cats want to eat in front of their owners, while others prefer complete privacy.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a cat food-tasting event for humans at your local pet emporium. Thanks to those human testers willing to dish on cat food traits, though, your cat might someday have more intriguing combinations of flavors and textures.

“We’re not assuming that what we as humans taste is going to be the same as what cats taste,” says Dr. Pickering. “The idea is, we’ll find some relationships.”

Kim Boatman is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Daily Catbased in Northern California whose work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals and shares her home with three cats.


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