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I'm Italian, now living in the US for some months. As you may know we like pasta. I tried Barilla here, our best known pasta brand. Well.. the taste seems a little bit different to me. It is actually produced here and not imported, so it could be different. Looking at the Italian/US versions of the package there doesn't seem to be a big difference, except for the fact that the US version is enriched with vitamins (which shouldn't change the taste). To dig deeper into the question and avoid any other factor (cooking water, sauce, subjectivity) I want to bring a box back to Italy and run a test with a panel (10 friends basically).

I would cook the same quantity of the same pasta shape of Barilla (ITA/USA) in the same pan (keeping them separated of course), so same water and same salt amount. Then same sauce (same quantity) for both. Suppose A is the Italian pasta and B is the US pasta.

Now.. how should I give it to the participants? Same amount of A and B in a blind test and ask whether they are different or not? Maybe give to some participants A-A or B-B (always blind test). Or maybe give A first (which they already know, so not blind) and then give someone (blind this time) A or B again and ask which one they think it is..

Looking for suggestions. I want to be as scientific as possible. I also contacted Barilla, who claim the pasta is exactly the same. Thanks

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    The difference in flavor most likely is because of the grain used. Considering the pasta is produced locally, it's probably produced with locally sourced grain, and the USA has different rules concerning agricultural things like pesticides and how many "defects" a batch of grain may contain. – Nzall Oct 1 at 6:36
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    As a person with professional history in Quality Management and Sensory testing, I want to point out that not even the individual strings of pasta are exactly the same. The formal wording would be "the difference is indetectable by the majority of the population with 99% confidence provided that the instructions on the package are followed" – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 1 at 8:19
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    Adding to what @Nzall says, even ignoring "defects" and pesticides, grain grown in different soil, exposed to different amount of sun and rain, would taste differently. That's why we talk of the "terroir" of wine, for instance. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Oct 1 at 10:08
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    @Galastel and before we get to terroir, the cultivars used are different between Europe and North America. That being said, agriculture is quite global now, and it is entirely possible that the grain used in the pasta was not grown on the same continent. – rumtscho Oct 1 at 11:02
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    Have you already excluded water as a factor? Back in Italy you cooked the pasta in Italian water, and now in US water. Your proposed test correctly uses the same water to focus on pasta differences, but why presume that that's the cause? – MSalters Oct 1 at 13:34
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The best approach is to use a triangle test. This would be the standard used in sensory sciences. It is easy, and it will be a fun thing to do with friends. Basically, each friend (panelist) is provided with three blind samples. Two are the same, and one is different. The objective is for them to tell you which one is different. The validity is enhanced if you randomize the possible combinations across your participants. The linked site provides all the necessary information, but the practice is quite common and further detail can be found from multiple sources. I would be curious to hear the results!

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    thanks! I'll post the results..I'll do the same for Nutella (US Nutella is produced in Canada) which also tastes little different for me.. – rok Sep 30 at 21:02
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    I like this idea.+1 - but though not mentioned, I would avoid cooking both simultaneously in the same pan, to avoid potential cross-contamination. – Tetsujin Oct 1 at 6:26
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    Could you please quote some of the content in here? This is to avoid that your answer doesn't stand on it's own in case the link changes. If you read cooking.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer you will find the "Provide context for links" section, which states: "Always quote the most relevant part of an important link, in case the target site is unreachable or goes permanently offline." – Ismael Miguel Oct 1 at 8:29
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    @IsmaelMiguel it's always a balance, right? I think I clearly described what a triangle test is, even including the best practice of randomizing across participants. Yes, it is concise, but the process is not that complicated. Plus, this information is very easily accessible across multiple sources and sites, as it is common best practice in sensory science. This information will not suddenly be lost. – moscafj Oct 1 at 10:46
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    @rok: Nutella actually is different even across countries in Europe. In France it is more fluid than e.g. in Germany, due to the fact that French bread is usually a bit softer. – Uwe Ziegenhagen Oct 2 at 17:45
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This reminds me of a story I heard in statistics involving a claim by a woman that she could tell the difference between the difference between adding milk to tea vs adding tea to milk. A statistician overheard this boost and decided to design an experiment to determine whether her claim was accurate. If you use just two cups, one with milk added and one with tea added, well, even I have a 50% chance of choosing correctly just by picking one at random. It doesn't really tell us anything if she picks out the one with milk added.

It is possible to use statistics to estimate the probability that the observed results could be explained by someone just randomly choosing cups of tea. If that probability is low*, there is a statistically significant chance that there is something else to explain the results (i.e. that the tester can taster can tell the difference). Ideally, the scientist will design experiments before hand so that they know what significance level they can expect at the conclusion of the experiment. Using 2 cups of tea gives us a 50% probability that random chance explains the solution, so is not very meaningful. It turns out that an 8 cup experiment, 4 with milk added and 4 with tea added, makes it much more difficult to correctly identify the 4 cups with milk added if you just select them at random. Indeed, there's only a 1.4% that someone will correctly select the 4 cups. If the lady is successful, there is a high probability that she can actually discern the difference. If she got even one incorrect, however, that claim would not be statistically sound (there's an almost 1 in 4 chance of getting three of four cups correct if you just randomly select them--not terribly impressive).

Your pasta question is almost exactly the same as the question involving tea: can a person tell the difference between food A and food B. Only instead of whether tea is added to milk or milk is added to tea, you examine US pasta versus Italian pasta. The tea experiment required the drinker to correctly pick which ones had milk added. If you are only interested in whether your guests can tell the difference in the, but not necessarily whether they can correctly identify which is US and which is Italian, a similar experiment would only achieve a 2*1.4%=2.8% significance level. Still pretty good.

Of course, preparing 8 dishes per guest may be a bit of work. If you do 6 dishes, with 3 American and 3 Italian, you'd be right at 5% significance if a guest correctly chooses the pastas. Using 4 dishes would give you a 1/6 (16.7%) significance, and 3 dishes would just give a 1/3 (33.3%) significance. Up to you to determine how much confidence you want, and how much work you want to put into it ;).

Note that these numbers are for a single individual testing the dishes. Presuming you have a number of guests, the analysis gets more complicated, since you're adding in an additional variable (each individual is different). Generally, having more guests would help with you confidence that there is a difference in the pastas...if they are all able to pass whatever test you set up. If only a handful are, it's much harder to draw conclusions.

* The choice of the target probability that random chance can explain the observations (the null hypothesis) is arbitrary. A lower probability means you have more confidence in your observations, but requires more work. In many scientific fields, a level of 5% is considered "statistically significant", but there is push-back that a much smaller level should be used, as alluded to by @doneal24 in the comments.

  • Just a comment on your statistics. There has been a lot of scrutiny on using a p-value of 0.05 to justify the validity of results and a large number of scientists are pushing for a p-value of 0.005 instead. Even then, the statistics would be used to indicate a likelyhood of validity and therefore worth following up on. The statistician who proposed the p-value standard of 0.05 has been quoted as saying that was the worst mistake of his life. – doneal24 Oct 2 at 17:10
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    @doneal24 I generally agree with you, and often even the 0.05 p-value isn't applied rigorously so the results are sometimes even more suspect than that value would imply. That said, felt it would be better to try to help give a basic insight into a statistical way of looking at this problem by estimating the probability that the null hypothesis explains the observations. I was less concerned with with the specific p-value than the overall thought process. – pwcnorthrop Oct 2 at 17:52
  • You don't need 8 dished per guest. You just need N total dishes and a serving spoon per dish. Have each guest compile their own answers for each dish. (Which you should label). With 10 guests, 10 dishes makes sense. Then everyone passes their dish to the left after taking some and tasting it. – Peter Cordes Oct 3 at 15:16
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The Barilla website says that different areas use different wheat at different times:

"Where is Barilla pasta made — in the United States or Italy?
Barilla Pasta that is sold in the United States is made in our plants in Ames, IA and Avon, NY, with a few exceptions. Barilla Tortellini and Barilla Oven Ready Lasagne are made in Italy. Our Barilla Italy products state "Product of Italy, Distributed by Barilla America, Inc." on the packaging. We also have product that is made in Canada. Barilla opened the Ames plant in 1998 and our Avon plant in 2007. The Barilla family was very concerned about maintaining Barilla's high quality standards in the new plant. Consequently, the machines used in our Ames and Avon plants are the same as used in our plant in Parma, Italy. The recipe and the wheat blend are the same as that used in Parma, Italy. Barilla purchases its wheat from around the world, ending up with the best wheat available.".

Wikipedia: Barilla:

"... The company markets pasta in the US as being Italian ("An Italian Favorite" marketing) in flavor, but most of the product in the United States is actually made in Iowa or New York and not Italy. The wheat used is mainly local.

Barilla Group has several production plants all over the world: in Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, the United States (in Ames, Iowa and Avon, New York), and Mexico. The company also operates mills in Italy, Greece, Sweden, Turkey, and the US. While its central office is in Parma, it has corporate offices in several other countries as well, such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the US, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, and Japan. Barilla's Italian production facilities are located at Parma, Foggia, Marcianise, Castiglione delle Stiviere, Cremona, Melfi, Rubbiano, Novara, and Ascoli Piceno. Its plant in Greece (near Thiva) is the third largest in Europe. The plant where the pasta was made is noted on the packaging by a code letter, whereas products made in Italy are explicitly labeled as such. The wheat used to make the final product is purchased from around the world.

The recipe was changed in 2016, and is occasionally updated:

"The company continues to improve the nutritional profile of its products, replacing palm oil in its bakery portfolio and expanding the range of whole grain products.

The new Bio/Organic Pasta is launched on the European and US markets: 100% selected durum wheat from organic farms.".

Grain grown in different fields is transported via various routes to different markets by different train and trucking companies; all wheat isn't identical.

Grain by train routes Click to zoom in on central USA

Different countries have different regulations concerning the production of pasta, and there are different species of cultivated wheat. Durum wheat is usually used for pasta, it is ground for its wheat middlings and used to make semolina.

Barilla also changed its source of wheat due to concerns over glyphosate pesticides and contamination from Bayer Monsanto's RoundUp wheat.

That provides a few sources explaining why it tastes different depending on time and place.

  • Rob, I am sure you noticed that technically this doesn’t answer the question? I will not mod-hammer this post as I think it still supplies valuable information to the asker about the original issue (a perceived difference in taste), possibly being an alternative suggestion to running an actual experiment. And our Help Center explicitly permits “try X instead” answers if well explained. – Stephie Oct 4 at 16:16
  • Yes, I am a native English speaker; and I focused on this part of the question: "Well.. the taste seems a little bit different to me. It is actually produced here and not imported, so it could be different. ... I also contacted Barilla, who claim the pasta is exactly the same.". --- I am agreeing with user rok, the taste would be different; and have explained why. If you want to be technical no two pieces are identical, that goes without saying. Thanks for reading, I wouldn't have imagined one could earn +8/0 and draw an NAA flag. I could offer a generic test procedure if that was asked. – Rob Oct 4 at 19:31
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I would suggest rather than testing it on other people who may not be able to tell the difference to have someone do a blind taste test on you. I would try the pasta without a sauce, or have a very simple sauce so you can really taste the pasta. Cooking it in the same pan at the same time sounds tricky, but if you can figure a way to keep them separated it would eliminate some variables.

If you want to test on a group of people it's best to keep it simple. An A-A and B-B test is never a bad idea, but you'd need to double your sample size in order to get decent results. If you have 8 or 10 guests split them in half and give half A first and the other half B first, that way you have 4 or 5 people trying each.

By the way, De Cecco pasta is available in the states and I'm pretty certain it's only made in Italy. I way prefer it to Barilla, if you can find it that might be the way to go.

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    Yes, De Cecco here in US is imported and is definitively better (in Italy we have other less commercial brands even better than these), I'm just curious about Barilla.. Why do you say cooking in the same pan is tricky? I'm thinking about using something like this i.ebayimg.com/images/g/obIAAOSw2~Zb0nUn/s-l1600.png .. but now I'm thinking that pasta release substances like starch during cooking, so it might be not a good idea.. – rok Sep 30 at 21:00
  • Not sure if you get it in the US, but here in Canada it's usually pretty easy to find La Molisana and Delverde, which are also both very good pastas. – J... Oct 1 at 12:10
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I actually think vitamins can change the taste a little. If you try the Nequik cacao in the 1Kg bag vs the 600g plastic case you will taste a difference and the only real difference in the ingredients are vitamins. If it's true for cacao I think it should be true for pasta too

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    the only real difference in the ingredients are vitamins. No, the packaging and its properties are different. Not to mention shelf life, storage conditions, production dates, .... – Jan Doggen Oct 3 at 13:50
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    I fail to see the point. I said "the only difference in the ingredients", not "the only difference". Also Nesquik cacao is a industrial product... it taste the same in the 600g, 1200g and 300g product with the same ingredients, but it taste different with the 1000g product without vitamins. It is obviously only a hypothesis (as is that of anyone else), but it seems to me to be based on facts. – LiefLayer Oct 3 at 16:46

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