Dog-food-as-pâté? (Ain't this story just chopped liver?)
My brother-in-law Rick sent me a link to a post he'd seen on Business Insider that cited a study of an experiment in which people were asked to rate the taste of a couple of pricey canned pâtés along side of supermarket liverwurst, and spreads made out of Spam and Newman's Own dog food.
Given that 72% of the experiment's participants ranked the dog food as the worst tasting spread, the blogpost title - "Good Depression News! Dog Food And Pâté Taste The Same"was a bit misleading. But, hey, there's a recession on, and I hadn't yet seen any articles on retirees resorting to cat food, so the idea seemed almost fresh. And, with the old Honeymooners episode in which Ralph mistakes dog food for chopped liver in mind, the topic was sufficiently interesting to me that I clicked through to see the report on the full study, published as a working paper of the American Association of Wine Economists. (Once again, I am in slack-jawed awe of the infinite professional and organizational possibilities of this vast and varied economy of ours. Other than the wine economists themselves, who even knew that there was such a profession?)
The paper, by John Bohannon, Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, is delightfully dead-pan academic, and is all footnoted and referenced up. Perhaps my favorite sentence in the study is:
Measuring the hedonic tone free of bias requires a double-blind trial (Goldstein et al. 2008).
As for the trial itself, people really could distinguish between expensive Trois Cochons pâtés and tricked out dog food. And even between tricked out dog food and tricked out Spam.
The aggregate taste ranking of the dog food was highly significant (see Table III). The ranking difference between dog food and Spam was greater than the P<0.05 threshold, and the difference was greater than the P<0.01 threshold for all other samples. Subjects' preference for the duck liver mousse was also highly significant. The only sample that was not ranked significantly differently than the duck liver mousse (at the P<0.05 level) was the pork liver pâté.
Personally, I'd just as soon eat tricked out dog food as Spam. I can only guess that the Spam spread tasted better because it was saltier than the dog food (which, by the way, was made of ingredients that were okayed for human consumption).
As a kid, however, I did love Spam, right down to the tongue-searing, chemical-sodium little zing that you got on the first bite. We didn't have it very often - my father spent 4 years in the Navy, and had eaten enough Spam to last a lifetime - but when Dad was away, we would beg my mother to make Spam and home fries for dinner. Yummy-yum-yum.
And, while we're on the topic of dog food, I did try a bite of Alpo once. I knew that some of what went into the making of dog food was ingredients that appealed to the olfactory sense of the pet owner. (Somewhere during business school, I'd sat through a presentation by some Arthur D. Little researchers who specialized in food smell/flavor. I cannot for the life of me remember what the course was.) Anyway, many years ago, as I was opening a can of Alpo beef stew for the family pooch, I decided to grab a bite. It may have smelled pretty good, but the taste was decidedly, disappointingly bland. The dog seemed to like it just fine, however.
Back to the study, while the participants weren't exactly wolfing down the dog food:
Only 3 of 18 subjects correctly identified sample C as the dog food (see Table IV). A Chi-Squared test did not support the hypothesis that the distribution of guesses was significantly different from random (X2=0.433, P=0.9797).
The authors attributed this to their having so convinced their "subjects that the experience would not be disgusting, they might have excluded the worst-tasting sample from their guesses."
The study notes that the experiment was conducted on December 31st, between 8 and 10 p.m., in Brooklyn, NY.
Hmmm. Sounds like a New Year's Eve party. Which is was, and the authors provide a helpful link to a description of the event, at which the subjects were asked to do blind tests to see if they could distinguish between red and white wine. And then to participate in the dog-food taste-off.
Somewhat disappointingly, even after drinking, most folks liked the "real pâté" better than the ersatz. And, given how we all love to catch snobs out, the rank order for the five spreads correlated perfectly with the price. Those hoping that they would be able to swap out expensive for cheap goods be warned: sometimes you do get what you pay for.