Ask ELi: The Mysterious Case of the Quality Dairy French Onion Dip

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Emily Joan Elliott for ELi

Quality Dairy's French Onion Chip Dip comes in two sizes with different packaging.

In today’s Ask ELi to Investigate column, we will tackle only one question because it seems to stand in a category all its own and has elicited substantial interest within the community. We also need a whole column for this because we wound up consulting four specialists and corporate headquarters to get to the bottom of a question that has bothered probably more than one reader. (Honestly, this ELi Managing Editor may have also needed a little break from all the heavy news our team has been reporting in East Lansing.)

In this edition, we share not only one reader’s question and the answer from Quality Dairy, but also the questions that the ELi team subsequently submitted to various food specialists at Michigan State University to better understand why so many people believe the Quality Dairy French Onion Dip – said to be made with the same recipe but by a new manufacturer – could taste differently.

An ELi reader asked:

“In 2019, QD announced changes including outsourcing production of their iconic QD Dip ‘French Onion dip’ to family-owned producers, but in so doing, they promised ‘Each product is still made with QD’s exact recipes and formulas, ensuring exceptional taste and consistent quality.’ Many participants in local Facebook food pages claim that the recipe was changed then or thereafter. Can ELi get to the bottom of this?”

The quotation in our reader’s message came from a 2019 Fox47 news article in which Ken Martin, President and CEO of Quality Dairy, spoke about structural changes at Quality Dairy that included outsourcing milk, ice cream, and chip dip manufacturing to “private label companies,” most of which were family-owned dairies.

After receiving our reader’s question last week, ELi called Quality Dairy’s corporate headquarters in Lansing to see if the recipe has changed between when manufacturing was shifted to other companies in 2019 and the present day. We were told emphatically, “No,” the recipe is still exactly the same.

We also asked if we could learn the company that now manufactures QD’s French Onion Dip, but we received a “no” there, too.

Instead of sending our reader the short answer of “No, the recipes are still the same,” ELi dug a bit deeper. Could the change in taste be in the mind of consumers? Could ingredients sourced elsewhere change the taste? Does machinery play a role in taste outcomes?

“Are there any psychological or neurological factors that could influence how food tastes to individuals? Is it possible that hearing that a new company is manufacturing food make it taste different to the consumer?”

That’s the question we posed via email to Alexander W. Johnson, who has a doctorate in Behavioral Neuroscience and has taught a course in “The Neurobiology of Food Intake and Overeating” at MSU.

And the answer is: it’s possible.

“Our taste perceptions can loosely be divided into one of two categories; innate or learned,” wrote Johnson. Innate taste perception is based on our physiology and can determine why we like certain flavors and dislike others.

But learned experiences are something different. According to Johnson, “Our learned experiences with foods can also shape how we experience taste, through our cognitive expectations, acquired likes and dislikes as well as other factors that we confront while navigating our food environment.”

Johnson said the way food is packaged and the visual cues it provides can shape taste.

“The new packaging could trick the brain into thinking that the reader is consuming something novel—the novelty of food can dramatically influence how we process sensory taste cues,” he said.

ELi could not independently verify if the packaging for QD French Onion Dip changed between 2019 and today, but we do know that the packaging for the smaller container and larger one of QD French Onion Dip have two different labels, giving two different sets of cues to consumers.

“Can food even when prepared with the ‘same’ ingredients taste differently? For example, could using dairy products or produce from another farm lead to a slightly different taste?”

We posed that hypothetical to MSU Extension (which specializes in community outreach and agriculture), a food scientist at the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and a historian of food at the MSU Department of History.

The short answer is yes. There are many variables that can kick in when manufacturing is moved to another facility and overseen by another company, and even slight changes in the manufacturing process and ingredient sourcing can lead to changes in taste.

According to Helen Zoe Veit, an Associate Professor of History at MSU who specializes in the history of food in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “Food companies routinely scout for cheaper sources for ingredients, and a change in quality or provenance could affect taste, even if the recipe itself technically hasn’t changed at all.”

Jeffrey Swada, Associate Professor and Food Science Advisor for the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, explained that where ingredients come from can also play a role. Swada explained that milk’s flavor can be affected by whether cows are grain or grass fed or how the milk is pasteurized. (Visitors to MSU’s Beal Garden may have noticed a special section on plants that, when ingested by cows, can change how milk tastes.)

Produce sourced from different parts of the United States or different parts of the world can also taste differently for a variety of reasons.

“Could producing a product at a different facility lead to a different taste?”

Swada told ELi that the machinery used in manufacturing a food product can indeed account for slight differences in taste outcomes.

“The other facility might have different equipment that produces the product differently,” wrote Swada to ELi. “Maybe both facilities, for instance, mix at a certain point in the recipe, but the type of mixer they use could be different. This can go for other equipment like ovens, shredders, dicers, etc.”

Wade Syers, a Food Safety Specialist with MSU Extension, used the example of apple juice manufacturing to explain how using the same list of basic ingredients can lead to different taste outcomes even between batches of the same product made by the same company.

“For example, when making apple juice, the ingredient list is rather small, usually [consisting of] water, apple juice concentrate, and ascorbic acid,” wrote Syers to ELi. “The balance of those ingredients determines many characteristics such as acidity, degrees Brix, pH, and many others. Those characteristics are responsible for the smell, taste, and even color of the finished product.”

Those characteristics are measured as part of quality control, but the measurements only have to fall between a certain range of acceptable values. They do not need to be precisely the same every time.

Additionally, each brand can set their own ranges, “as long as customer safety is not an issue,” according to Syers.

“If those windows are large, there could [be] variation in the finished product between batches,” said Syers. “It is possible that different manufacturing facilities will make the same product and meet all the standards but fall into different parts of the acceptable windows.”

In the case of onion dip, for example, even if Quality Dairy set acceptable ranges for new manufacturers to follow, Quality Dairy’s version could have veered toward one end of the range and the new producer’s version toward the other, accounting for a perceived difference in taste.

Veit pointed out that, “even if a company is using the same ingredients from the same sources, factors like the age of ingredients and the time that elapses between production and consumption can affect taste.”

“So even if both recipe and ingredients are unaltered, a change in facility location might affect supply-chain timing in a way that slightly alters taste,” said Veit.

In short, even though Quality Dairy did not change its recipe when passing along the job of manufacturing to other companies, the dip made by another company may very well taste different to consumers.

Do you have an East Lansing-area question that you want ELi to investigate? Submit your question here. We can’t promise that we will turn every simple question into a historical and scientific inquiry like we did with this one, but we do try to get an answer to every question that we receive because we take seriously that ELi is your nonprofit community news service.

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