The various sensory properties of food—including appearance, texture, sound, fragrance and, of course, flavor—work together to delight, bore or repel consumers. This synergy has become increasingly important today, with individuals attaching more significance to their food choices and prioritizing personalization and adventure, as well as wellness and environmental sustainability.
“Humans are multisensory beings,” notes Keera Perumbala, marketing manager for Sensient Flavors, a unit of Sensient Technologies Corp., Milwaukee. “Our food and beverage choices have moved far away from being one-dimensional, as we crave for our products to offer us an experience. This is especially true of younger Millennials and Generation Z consumers.”
Foods that previously resonated with all generations of mainstream American consumers, such as a simple sandwich on white bread, boxed macaroni and cheese and canned fruit cocktail, hold no allure for contemporary foodies. They are eager to try novel cuisines and beverages and unique ingredient combinations and to share their discoveries with others.
Consumers today are definitely more adventurous when it comes to food and beverages, says Pat O’Brien, regional platform leader for Clean & Simple Ingredients, a focus area of Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “Social media is driving a lot of this curiosity,” he explains. “Younger consumer groups are exposed to different types of foods, including different textures and different appearances, and this creates interest and demand.”
With so many consumers snapping photos of their food with their smart phones and posting the images on Instagram, an enticing appearance has never been more crucial for food and beverage products. “If there is anything that the unicorn trend has taught us, it is that younger consumers eat with their eyes,” Perumbala says. “They focus on the appearance of food, as it is key to creating Instagram-worthy images.”
The more vibrant the colors are, the more tempting the foods appear, she continues. “Evolutionally, consumers are attracted to bright and vibrant shades. Think of the deep purple shades that berries bring or the bright red shades of beets. At Sensient, we have a robust portfolio of rainbow shades to suit the needs of our customers; whether [they are] going into a beverage or baked goods, we can offer shades to perform well in all types of processing parameters.”
Colors (as well as flavors) derived from natural sources have become paramount, O’Brien adds. “Manufacturers are moving to fruit and vegetable concentrates, purees and other ingredient solutions derived from carrots, beets, squashes and so forth,” he says, noting that Kerr Concentrates is a division of Ingredion innovating in this realm.
Breakfast cereal manufacturers have long recognized the importance of sound in suggesting quality and evoking pleasure from consumers, as the many iterations of the 1930s-debuting “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” ads for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies made clear. Yet as Charles Spence, an Oxford University psychology professor and expert on sensory perception, has noted, sound has been under-appreciated and under-researched in the food industry and academia.
In “Eating with our Ears: Assessing the Importance of the Sounds of Consumption on our Perception and Enjoyment of Multisensory Flavour Experiences” (published in Flavour Journal in 2015), Spence wrote that research indicates consumers equate the fizzy sound of a just-opened carbonated beverage and the crispy crunch of snack chips with freshness.
Bearing this out was last year’s backlash over a widely reported rumor that PepsiCo planned to launch a line of quiet, “crunch-less” chips designed for women. “What woman doesn’t want a crunchy chip?” asked Ellen DeGeneres in a February 2018 comedy routine on her TV show lampooning “Lady Doritos,” as the hypothetical chips had been dubbed. “If your chip isn’t crunchy, it isn’t a chip; it’s a wet potato.”
Closely associated with sound is texture, or the physical attributes of a food or beverage product. Texture is experienced when the consumer touches food with his or her hands or with utensils prior to eating—or pours, stirs or places a straw in a beverage.
But most important is mouthfeel: the physical sensations in the mouth produced by a particular food or beverage that lead a consumer to determine whether it's tough or tender; chewy, mushy or flaky; hard or soft; crispy, crunchy or soggy; cohesive or crumbly; viscous or watery; cool or warm.
Texture is critical to product liking and “can be a major reason for food rejection” and “one of the strongest drivers of food aversion,” noted the article “Food Texture Assessment and Preference Based on Mouth Behavior,” published online in April 2016 in the journal Food Quality and Preference.
“Someone can develop the most elegant flavor, but if the texture of the finished product is grainy or less than desirable, the flavor perception can be skewed based on dislike of the texture,” observes Dana Chen, senior flavorist with Sensient Flavors.
Texture, as well as taste, fragrance and color, “can all inspire an emotional connection when you try to differentiate brands in the market and really set them apart and drive not only purchase intent but repeat purchasing,” adds Ingredion’s O’Brien.
Modern food trends such as the clean label and free-from movements and the demand for plant-based proteins and vegan analogues (burgers, yogurt, seafood and the like) have spurred much formulation research into how desirable textures and colloidal dispersion can be achieved—in the absence of gluten, egg white as binder, muscular tissue and blood and an ever-growing list of demonized thickening, emulsifying and stabilizing additives, depending on the product category.
Ingredion, for example, has done a substantial amount of research and development in the gluten-free and plant-protein realms, in recent years rolling out a broad portfolio of pulse protein concentrates and flours, from yellow peas, lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans, says O’Brien.
Fortunately, with new products and formulations proliferating, U.S. consumers have become more intrepid about texture, industry experts say. This is partly due to growing interest in ethnic cuisines and healthful, functional natural ingredients, according to Perumbala.
“Everything from spice to nuts to foam is helping to create some unique sensations in products,” she says. “Think about smoothie products that add chia seeds or granola for texture.”
A number of research studies by Sensient suggest that “younger consumers especially enjoy unexpected textural elements in their food and beverage choices,” Perumbala shares. The company has responded with its “sensates” line of solutions:
- Heatenol generates heat, ranging from warming to spicy, “to create the surprise element younger consumers are looking for,” as Perumbala puts it.
- Coolenol delivers a cooling sensation to the taste buds “akin to that of menthol.”
- Tingle adds a tingling sensation “like a tickle in the throat or an electrifying dance on the tongue,” she says.
Mouth behavioral differences
The aforementioned Food Texture Assessment and Preference article emphasizes that there has been a “preponderance of research” describing and measuring the effects of textural attributes on product preferences but very little research into what underlies individual differences in sensory perception.
Indeed, mouth behavior during consumption has a dramatic impact on how individuals perceive texture and flavor, says study co-author Jacqueline Beckley, founder and president of The Understanding & Insight Group, Denville, N.J.
Through qualitative and quantitative studies of consumers, Beckley and her colleagues have identified four major mouth behavior groups based on how diverse study participants (ages 15 to 65) say they manipulate various types of food in their mouths:
- Chewers—More than 40% of the U.S. population, this largest group enjoys the action of chewing and wants a bolus to form in the mouth before swallowing food. These individuals typically eat more slowly than crunchers and prefer not to hear their food, according to Beckley.
- Crunchers—Approximately one-third of the population, the second-largest group “attacks food very vigorously” and doesn’t want a bolus to form before swallowing, she says.
- Smooshers—Roughly 15% of the population, this group likes to “suck on food a little bit and then smoosh it on the roof of their mouth,” Beckley notes.
- Suckers—Less than 10% of the population, individuals in this group “are looking for a flavor hit,” she explains. “Suckers are very flavor-driven, and they are looking for the design of the food to afford them the ability to get at the flavor.”
These mouth behaviors not only help explain food selection—a smoosher, for example, would likely choose Cheetos Puffs over Cheetos Crunchy—but also individual variations in the perception of food properties, Beckley says. “Smooshers actually think that classic Pringles have a great crunch,” she points out, noting that she herself is a chewer.
Food formulators and marketers need to keep these differences in mind when developing new products and deciding what claims to list on their packaging and marketing materials, Beckley maintains.
Genetics and other factors
One growing area of research evaluates how genetic factors influence sensory perception. In the domain of flavor, the perception of bitterness has been studied the most and is the most affected by DNA, according to sensory researcher Alissa Nolden, an assistant professor in the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“We have 25 different bitter taste receptors, and there seem to be a lot of genetic mutations within the 25 receptors,” she says. Genetic differences then could help explain why some consumers love unsweetened black coffee while others need to add a lot of sugar to make it palatable, Nolden notes.
As she points out, the prevailing hypothesis for why humans have more taste receptors for bitterness than for any of the other taste categories—sweetness, sourness, saltiness, umami or capsaicin—is that evolutionally, humans needed to avoid consuming toxins, which typically have a bitter taste.
Nolden also has studied the effects of chemotherapy on taste perception—research that aims to improve the nutrition and food enjoyment of cancer patients. Other research is being conducted on the effects of aging, Alzheimer’s disease and Down syndrome on food sensory perception.
Although consumer perceptions of food and beverage products may differ based on genetics, mouth behavior, stage of life, health and other variables, one thing remains clear. Whatever their background, “consumers are looking for really compelling sensory experiences.” says O’Brien.