Derek Spors's job as a product developer at Ben and Jerry's is not only something completely different but something completely delicious! The Vermont-based ice cream company is typically thought of as a fun-loving, free-spirited enterprise but, behind the scenes, it takes scoops of dedication and scientific expertise to invent the flavors we've come to love while maintaining the highest-quality standards.
Employees at Ben & Jerry's are free to create their own job titles; Spors has spiced up the mundane moniker of product developer to ice cream scientician (a term borrowed from TV's The Simpsons). His career path runs in the Spors family--you could say he's in the middle of an ice cream sandwich, what with an older brother working as a product developer at Good Humor-Breyers and a younger brother studying for a food sciences degree.
The research and development staff members at Ben & Jerry's usually come from culinary backgrounds, but Spors's formal education was scientific: He received a B.S. in food sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His science, though, was supplemented by special "sensory evaluation" training.
Spors says this makes for a good mix: "Someone with a food science background and someone with a culinary background both know a lot about food, but the things we know are different. In studying food science, you learn about food functionality and behavior, but you don't really learn how to make it taste good. To the consumer, it's all about the taste." Great tastes are exactly what Spors spends his days inventing and perfecting.
The process has to begin with a new idea for a flavor or concept, which can come from just about anywhere--Spors keeps his eye on current industry trends and new food products, as well as researching trade journals for ideas that might work for ice cream. Next comes the formulation of new "base" mixes. This lays the foundation for new flavors, and it involves some complex science. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has specifications that must be met if a product is to be labeled "ice cream." Beyond these requirements, "close attention has to be paid to the freezing-point depression, the total solids content, and the viscosity of the mix," says Spors. One thing that makes ice cream tricky to work with is the constant need for cold temperatures, which present some unique challenges that include "lactose and ice crystallization, moisture migration, and molecular mobility in the mix." On top of all these legal and chemical requirements, the mix has to taste good.
Once a base mix has been made and a new flavor finalized, it can't be sent out to the grocery store shelf untasted. Ben & Jerry's has a couple of "sensory testing" methods to make sure its ice cream tastes great. Another part of Spors's job is to design, execute, and oversee these tests.
One method is "difference testing." It's used not only with new flavors but also with current ones, to confirm that all ingredients are up to Ben & Jerry's standards. For example, sometimes suppliers may make a change in the source from which they obtain a certain ingredient. This being the case, "if we need to make a change, we want to ensure that the final product is the same great ice cream [that] consumers are accustomed to purchasing," explains Spors. The objective in difference testing is to eliminate all possible confounding factors, leaving just the one variable (the one changed ingredient). Special lighting (to blind testers to any color differences), identical containers, and randomly numbered labels can be used to help achieve the necessary test conditions to assure accurate, unbiased evaluations.
Testers in the "triangle" version of difference testing are served three samples to taste, two of which are the same, in a specific randomized order. Upon completion of the test, Spors evaluates whether there is statistically significant difference in the testers' ability to identify the one different sample versus the probability of achieving identical results randomly.
The second form of taste testing is "slightly less controlled than a difference test but a lot more fun," according to Spors. This is preference testing, in which actual consumers of Ben & Jerry's ice cream are paid to taste new ice cream flavors! These tests, similar to the focus groups used by some other industries, help give Ben & Jerry's R&D department indications of which new flavors would be most successful to market. Despite the informal nature of these tests, study design and methodology must be given careful consideration if they are to yield sound data. "If the test is not properly designed, the 'halo effect' can really hurt you with this type of testing," says Spors. "For example, if someone tries a flavor that they really hate, ... the next flavor they try will [often] receive an inflated score because preferences are somewhat relative."
The science of ice cream does have its rewards--who wouldn't like a chance at creating a new ice cream flavor of their own? Says Spors: "A nice benefit to my job is that the end result is a pint on a shelf at a grocery store, so I am able to share my work with everyone." He even has a fan club of sorts: "I was at a wedding this summer when someone found out I worked for Ben & Jerry's. They started telling me about their favorite flavor and how much they loved it. When I told her I worked on that product, she asked to have her picture taken with me!"
So what flavors has Spors worked on? The new "Vanilla for a Change," the caramel core in "Karamel Sutra," and the peanut butter core in "Peanut Butter Me Up" are just a few. As for what he's working on now, the flavors under development are top secret!