Our 10,000 or so taste buds play the most vital role in food selection. Beyond taste, sensory properties such as smell, sound, appearance and texture influence what we select to eat. Food must taste delicious, certainly, but mouthfeel, texture, looks and smell are also important to the overall eating experience.
"The aroma component of flavor is key," says Jean-Xavier Guinard at the University of California-Davis Extension, which is now accepting applications for its applied sensory and consumer science certificate program. Foods must smell fresh or ripe, and have what we recognize as the proper color, size, shape, consistency and opacity. Thumping a melon, for example, tells us a lot about its texture and ripeness, as does checking other foods for flakiness, moistness, dryness, oiliness and so on.
Sound is important, as consumers know foods must maintain a certain level of crunch, bubble, sizzle, pop, snap and crackle, without negatively affecting shelf life or nutritional profile. Food that's supposed to be crispy and crunchy should have the same crunch and crispness every time it's eaten.
Evoking a multi-sensory experience through food, condiment manufacturer Mizkan America Inc. (www.mizkan.com), Mt. Prospect, Ill., says a fusion of sensory responses is what creates a pleasurable experience. "When quality ingredients are at the core of the food we eat, all of the senses are positively stimulated," notes Sara Delach, brand manager at Mizkan.
The 'wow' meter
At Tasty Bite, a Stamford Conn., maker of Indian and Asian microwavable entrees, a trained, discriminating sensory panel considers five food attributes when developing something new: color/appearance, texture, taste, aroma and flavor. (Tasty Bite was a winner of our 2016 R&D Teams of the Year. Read more about the company)
"We work with a lot of ingredients across different cuisines, which helps us create specific attributes across variety of products, [so] defining the sensory parameters becomes absolutely critical," explains Shashish Hodlur, head of R&D. "We focus on delivering robust and bold flavors while ensuring the desirable appearance, texture and consistency."
Products must register high on the panel's "wow meter" in order to pass the test. Flavors should be robust and clean, and in synch with consumer expectations, Hodlur says. "We have an index that measures ... 'wow levels,' and assess the factors that contribute to a wow."
Every product must look appealing the moment it comes out of the package, he continues. "Basmati rice has to look white, with long grains, and be free flowing. We expect a sauce to have a smooth consistency, and the vegetables should have a firm texture. The lentils in our lentil-based products must be firm but perfectly cooked. A cheese-based sauce should have a silky, smooth consistency without lumps."
Food scientists at TIC Gums Inc. (www.ticgums.com), White Marsh, Md., use a combination of triangle tests and descriptive analyses. Triangle tests decide if there's a significant, perceptible difference between products when a change is made to one of them, explains Lauren Schleicher, food technologist. "After a difference is identified, the next step involves a descriptive analysis to determine how the products compare across different sensory characteristics." The food scientist then analyzes individual texture attributes, such as mouth coating, viscosity and astringency to hone in on which attribute causes it to be different than the others. TIC Gums has compiled a comprehensive set of sensory terms to standardize how product texture is described during the development process, she says.
Tate & Lyle Hoffman Estates, Ill. (www.tateandlyle.com), uses a mix of discriminatory product tests for customers, including one to see if there's a detectable difference among two or more products; consumer affective testing, which uses a large group of untrained participants to help determine how much a product is liked; and a descriptive analysis that evaluates appearance, aroma, flavor, oral texture, geometrical parameters, fat/moisture parameters and skin-feel characteristics.