Take My Whiff, Please

If Hill Top Research employee Kim Sweet had ever appeared as a contestant on What's My Line?, members of the game-show panel would probably have thrown up their hands in defeat.

And if they'd also thrown up their arms, she could have actually demonstrated her unusual occupation.

An "odor judge," Sweet is one of several Hill Top specialists who make their living by sticking their noses into other people's business.

Depending on which studies are under way, Sweet may sniff panelists' armpits to determine how effective a deodorant is. To determine the effectiveness of a new soap product, she might nasally scrutinize the odors of hands that have been soaked in garlic and tuna.

Rather humble about her nasal acuity (she modestly admits she can often smell when someone has eaten a lot of fruit or taken large quantities of vitamins), the 38-year-old Sweet explains that her odd vocation is "not something I really discuss a lot. It's just something I found I was qualified to do and I feel I do it well."

A former Hill Top panelist, Sweet claims she was totally unaware of her "perceptive olfactory capability" up until a few years ago, when the company began screening potential odor judges. After scoring high on a test that asked applicants to identify a wide variety of not-readily familiar odors, Sweet was sent to Hill Top headquarters in Cincinnati for extensive training.

Based on a series of chemically simulated scents known as "malodorants," the program teaches judges to remember industry-recognized scents and score them against actual odors they'll run across in the lab.

Depending at which particular lab a judge will be working (Hill Top's seven product-testing labs all specialize in different product groups), a would-be sniffer may be expected to bone up on the aroma of everything from dirty diapers to bad breath.

"There's training for each type of product," explains Sweet, whose own training primarily focused on distinguishing underarm odors, kitchen smells and fragrances--scents that frequently turn up in tests conducted at the Scottsdale lab. "The mouth odors are distinctively different than, say, foot odors."

When not actively working on a study, Sweet is frequently nosing around for new odor-judge recruits--no easy task.

She says finding people with trained noses is only half the battle. "Out of 12 people [who get past the first test], we may wind up with two good odor judges," she reports. "A lot of the trainees drop out. Personality-wise, this is not for everyone."

--Dewey Webb

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Dewey Webb