If you define yourself as an "average human," you'll eat around 35 tons of food in your lifetime. However, before much of it reaches your mouth, somebody somewhere will have had to test it first. In the kitchens of the country's biggest supermarkets and mega chains, a food tester will be eating huge amounts of the same product again and again, in an attempt to provide the perfect bite for your flimsy, fickle tastes.
I spoke to a few of those testers—experts in ice cream, pies, noodles, and pizza—to see what it's like to eat exactly the same food over and over again, every working day, for years on end.
THE ICE CREAM TESTER
VICE: How much ice cream do you eat in one day?
Louise Bamber: In a testing week, I can be tasting up to two hundred fifty ice creams from eight in the morning to eight at night. As summer starts, I buy every single product from Walls, Unilever, and other supermarkets and try them all to measure them up against ASDA. That can be a long day, though we do have breaks because, eating all that sugar, you get cravings for crisps or a nice piece of fruit.
How do you keep all of that down?
I'm known for being hardcore. I make all my traders taste all of the brands. Vanilla alone can be dozens of flavors, from value range to decadent styles. As unsavory as it sounds, I spit most of them out, like a wine taster would. It would be awful to consume all that sugar. It's a sign of a good ice cream if I swallow, put it that way.
Do you ever get brain freeze?
Ice pops are actually the worst, as your teeth become hyper sensitive to the cold. Therefore, you break a chunk off and suck it rather than repeatedly biting into the tops of different ones.
What foods do you eat outside of work?
After big tasting sessions, I always crave cheese and crackers or a big bowl of buttery mashed potato. I do a lot of walking to stave off the ice cream pounds, and I go to the dentist at least four times a year to check my teeth. But look, I'm not eating like that all the time.
What's the key to great ice cream?
Regardless of how much you pay for an ice cream the fundamentals are the same. If you can freeze it very quickly you have tiny crystals that aren't felt on the tongue, leaving a lovely smooth, melty finish. If you re-freeze ice cream or freeze it slowly, there are larger crystals, which taste jagged and sharp.
Why does fresh soft serve taste so good compared to tub ice cream?
If you have a Mr. Whippy from the van, that ice cream isn't ever one hundred percent frozen, and that's why it feels so creamy and rich—it's actually only about seventy percent frozen at any point. As a supermarket, we can't create that because we have to freeze it to transport it.
What's the future of ice cream?
Retro childhood dessert flavors, so jam roly-poly or Battenberg flavor ice cream. We did try a chicken korma ice cream; the coconut worked really well, but the rest would be way too much for our customers.
THE PIE TESTER
Peter, what have you eaten today?
Peter Nickson: At eight in the morning, I have around five different cooked meats. Then, half an hour later, I have a taste of fifteen different quiches. Then nine thirty in the morning is the "pie hour," where I taste ten different pies—all of our chicken and steak varieties, plus all the fruits. That's my day every day. Then, at ten on the dot, I have a bacon butty, and I also have a proper lunch at one and dinner when I get home.
Do you not worry about putting on weight?
As yet, in nine years, I don't seem to have piled it on. I definitely don't go home and do fifty sit-ups.
Is it just a tiny taste of each one?
No, it's about being thorough. You aren't eating a whole pie, but you've got to take in the lid, pastry, filling, and the meat content of each one.
How do you stomach doing this every day?
You're always looking to revolutionize. We've just added malt extract to our steak pies to make the gravy thicker and darker. I've also developed a fish and chip pie and a "full English" pie with a fried breakfast and everything else in it. We put through seven thousand five hundred pies every hour and use ten tons of pastry a day.
Serious question, does a shepherd's pie really count as a pie?
For me, you should be able to eat a pie with your hands, on the go. Unless you hold it in a tray, you can't do that with a shepherd's pie.
Is your product basically an upmarket Cup Noodles?
Crispin Busk: It's basically "Posh Noodle," or Wagamama in a pot. Pot Noodle is awesome, but there isn't a smarter one out there, so I created one. Selling a luxury food is always more fun. No one likes saying: "My noodles taste crap, but at least they're the cheapest."
How many noodles did you eat to launch the product?
We tasted every instant noodle on the market, from supermarkets to obscure Asian food stores. That's possibly two hundred noodle types. Then, in our own testing, you often need to eat the whole pot, as a few mouthfuls can be really enjoyable, but you only really know what it's like if you eat all of it. Then, if we got a mixed response on a flavor, we taste them all again the next day. You do find they taste completely different if you've had a boozy night out.
What was the most disgusting noodle you ever ate?
Crushed fish head flavor? Fish intestine flavor rice porridge?
How do you consume that much noodle?
We have a lot of rules. We try to do the spitting thing and then drink lime cordial, which neutralizes your taste buds. We also only do tastings first thing in the morning, as your taste buds are much more receptive, and ban smoking and coffee, as that wrecks your taste buds.
How serious can it get tasting noodles all day?
Your taste buds get saturated, and you can't taste anything. I have burned through several kettles—I was probably boiling the kettle for noodles fifty times per week. We spent months creating a product that rehydrated with boiled water within a five minute period. Then you look at how densely they sit inside the cup and where the water fill line needs to be. We had charts. Taking a pinch of the powder out, then putting it back in. I thought it was fun at the time, but really my friends and family must have hated it.
Do you ever eat a noodle for pleasure?
I still eat noodles at home. We make food we'd happily eat ourselves and would happily give to our kids. Noodles get unfair press—if you made a curry from scratch at home using dried herbs and spices with rice from a packet, that wouldn't be a lot different.
THE PIZZA TASTER
So eating all that pizza, do you spit or swallow?
I swallow, definitely! Spitting is down to whoever is tasting it. I eat pizza every day. I'm not being really gluttonous, eating whole pizzas, but you are endlessly tasting. I still have my lunch. I still have my porridge when I come into work.
What's the hardest pizza you've had to create?
Probably our gluten free range. To be able to to make a base out of those ingredients that tastes like a pizza and not sawdust is really hard. Then there's the five hundred calorie pizza, which is super healthy. So you're up against bread that's quite calorific, then cheeses, and everything else. Thankfully our own mozzarella is pretty healthy and tasty.
What pizza is still on the drawing board?
We did a pizza with a caramelized onion base with no tomato, then we topped it with roasted butternut squash, smoked garlic, and no cheese, just a feta crumb and a wild rocket pesto. It tasted incredible, but we didn't think it was right for us—it needs to sell well across hundreds of stores.
How off-road can you get? Are your weird hot dog crust pizzas as wild as you can go?
We're always adding new stuff. Frickles—fried pickles—are a big American thing we were the first to adopt here. That's a deep fried pickle with crispy edges. I will make up hundreds each batch. That's fry, fry, fry, test, test, test. How big are the pickles? How fried are they? That's a lot of pickle eating.
How much exercise do you do so you don't keel over?
I do go to the gym, but that's a lifestyle choice; I go because I like it, not because I feel I have to.
What's the best part about eating pizza for a job?
The best day is when a new menu launches. I get anxious, excited, nervous. To be able to sit in a restaurant and anonymously watch people eat what you've spent months working on is the biggest win for me. Honestly, I go and sit in any restaurant and watch people eat their pizza, see what they enjoy and how they react. I can't go past a Pizza Hut without going in it and seeing the customers. I need my finger on the pulse on what people like.
Is pizza better hot or cold the next day?
Our pizza is always the best the next day. They're as good cold as hot. It's not a good pizza if it isn't, and any chef will tell you the same.
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