When I say what my occupation is to those who are not in the food industry, I always get puzzled looks. Then followed by a ton of questions. When I’m in a hurry, I just respond with “I taste things for a living” and then laugh. But when I do have some time to elaborate about what I do for a living, I get to share with people what sensory is and why I love my job.
SO WHAT IS IT?
Sensory science, commonly referred to as ‘sensory evaluation’ and ‘sensory analysis’, is ” a scientific discipline used to evoke, measure, analyze, and interpret those responses to products that are perceived by the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing (Stone and Sidel 1993)“. To put it in simpler terms, it’s obtaining people’s reactions to products in terms how how it smells, tastes, looks, feels, and sounds and then using this information to make decisions. Whenever there is a question about product differences and likes or dislikes, sensory is usually involved. It is a mixture of food science, psychology, statistics, and consumer insights all rolled into one.
WHERE IS IT FOUND?
Most large food and beverage companies and companies that make household and personal care products have a sensory team. It usually resides under the umbrella of Research & Development, Process Development, or Technical Services within a company. Although it seems like these industries would be the only ones that use sensory science, other industries such as pharmaceuticals and even the US army use this fairly new field of science (<100 years). In fact, the US Army gave a great deal of support in the early development of Sensory Science. Universities that have colleges in Food Science will sometimes have sensory evaluation centers that are ran by students and professors of that college either as a service for food companies or for their own research. These centers can be great resources for small and mid sized companies that may not have the resources to conduct their own sensory testing.
SO IT’S JUST TASTING THINGS, RIGHT?
Seems easy enough. We eat and smell and look and hear every day, does that mean we’re doing science? The answer is no. To think about what we are smelling or tasting is one thing, but saying it out loud or writing it down on a piece of paper is another. Words seem to escape us when we try to express what we’re sensing into words or onto paper. It’s like we have words like “fresh”, “woody”, “tangy” floating around in our brains, but we can’t seem to find or grab a hold of them. To become trained in sensory, a person must learn to identify what these “floating words” in our mind are, what they mean, then intellectually “grab” them and make them concrete (like writing it down). Then, after that point, is it transformed into something that is that is measurable. It’s a whole process that takes practice.
HOW IS SENSORY DONE?
In sensory there are two groups of people: those who conduct the testing-the sensory team, and those who participate in the testing. Scientists and technicians make up the sensory team. They design and run the test. Sensory panelists participate in the testing. A panelist may be trained or untrained; it all depends on the type of test that is being conducted. A normal day for a sensory panelist will be first checking in and signing any waivers. Then, they will enter a sensory booth with a tiny door that technicians shove product through. There is usually a data collecting device (tablet, computer, or a paper ballot) in the booth for them to record their answers. Then, product will come through the window and they will answer questions about it. The whole process takes about 10 or 15 minutes. After that they’re headed out the door to collect their compensation, if one is given (Yes! It pays to be a sensory panelist!).
WHEN IS IT USED?
Ever wondered why the Fat Free Oreo tastes just as good as the regular Oreo? How about how Lay’s potato chips comes up with new flavors like Dill Pickle or Chile Limon? Sensory science was likely involved. For example, let’s say that we are a food company that makes a Signature cookie. We learn through our marketing and insights group that our consumers love our cookie, but it has too much fat. They want a reduced fat or fat free cookie. Our task now is to create a cookie that taste and looks just like our Signature cookie, but with less fat. How are we going to do this? The first step would be through the product developers. They are essentially the “chefs” that come up with the recipe. They work their magic and create a few samples. Next, they send these samples to sensory.
The sensory team will design tests to answer some questions:
- Is this new cookie different from our Signature cookie? -We call this Discrimination testing
- How is this new cookie different from our Signature cookie? –Descriptive testing
- Do our consumers like this new cookie? –Affective testing
Results are gathered and analyzed, then are reported back to the product developers and other stake holders to see if any teaks need to be made. Create, test, repeat. Through trial and error, we create the perfect cookie that looks and tastes just like the Signature cookie, but with less fat. Next, it moves onto Marketing where they will market the new product. (“Same taste, less fat!”)
New product development is just one of the many things Sensory Science can be used for. There are many other efforts that Sensory is involved in such as ingredient substitutions, process improvements, and quality.
WOW, SENSORY IS SO COOL! HOW CAN I LEARN MORE?
If you work in the food industry, it’s easy! Just call up your resident Sensory Scientist. They will be happy to talk to you. We are always happy to share our love of sensory science. For others who aren’t in the industry and would love to find out more, stay tuned for more blog posts! If you like to bury yourself in a book like I do, check out some of these books below:
- Sensory Evaluation Practices -Herbert Stone
- Sensory Evaluation of Foods: Principles and Practices -Hildegarde Heymann, Harry T. Lawless
- Sensory Evaluation in Quality Control -Alejandra M. Munoz
Entire organizations are dedicated to food and sensory science. You can find out more on their websites:
- IFT (Institute of Food Technologists)
- SSP (Society of Sensory Professionals
- ASTM E18 (American Standards of Testing Materials) Committee E18-Sensory Evaluation