Professional taste testers, with their finely-honed palates, could lose their jobs because a Virginia Polytechnic Institute professor has perfected a method for teaching computers to taste foods.

Instead of taste buds, the new process uses chemical "fingerprints" to measure tastes.

Central Soya Co. of Chicago is the first commercial user of the new method, utilizing it to sniff out off-flavors in soybean oil used to produce margarine, mayonnaise, cooking oil and other food products.

VPI researcher Dr. Harold P. Dupuy is using his computerized nose to gauge the aroma of smelly fish and says it has also been used to assess the flavor of spices, cereals and dairy products.

Central Soya, one of the nation's largest suppliers of commodities to food processors, says the technique allows production of the blandest oil possible, which is exactly the way food makers like their soybean oil.

The process produces computer graphics which instantly tell companies such as Nabisco or Frito-Lay how bland their soybean oil is or why it's not as bland as they would like, explained Mark O. Flanagan, vice president of Central Soya's Refined Oil Division.

The last thing food processors want is oil with a taste that would compete with the flavor they are trying to build into a food.

Dupuy explained why VPI is using the method to examine off-flavors in fish. "This is one of the greatest problems in developing aquaculture as a viable food industry. Our goal is to determine the chemical composition and the origin of compounds that cause off-flavors."

His process measures a food's "volatiles" -- chemical molecules that evaporate to produce odors or aromas.

Dupuy's innovation involves adding an "injection port" to a gas chromatograph, a commonly used research and laboratory device. The port allows instant testing of a sample without complicated preparation of the sample first.

It is this capability and the ease with which non-scientists can use the method that made Central Soya's commercial application possible, said L. D. Williams, vice president of research at the company's Fort Wayne, Ind. headquarters.

"We sent our scientist to consult with Dr. Dupuy. We then assembled the special equipment needed and tested it at the plant level. Today, we still use the same gas chromatography method devised by Dr. Dupuy, but we've automated it," Williams said.

Williams also said the technique has reduced but not yet eliminated the work done by panels of trained human taste testers. Besides verifying flavor, it can monitor the effects of processing conditions, evaluate the impact of storage, follow oil changes during shipments, monitor the change in the oil quality of finished products and gauge the freshness, or "shelf life," of a wide range of foods.