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Sensory Evaluation Equipment Gathers Unbiased Data

Sept. 25, 2007
No processor can afford to be wrong creating a new product. It pays to gather unbiased data in the form of sensory evaluation.

You think you have a great idea for a product. It fills a market niche, it's what the health-conscious consumer needs and everyone who's tried it loves it   it's bound to be a hit. But how can you be certain your judgment about the flavor is not wishful thinking? And how confident are you that consumers won't be turned off by the new taste?

Sensory evaluation (or sensory analysis) is the in-demand scientific discipline in processing. It uses a number of tools, especially the human senses, as data-gathering tools. Taste, texture, mouthfeel, aroma, appearance   all are scored by panels of human assessors to generate data for statistical analysis.

The objective is to evaluate consumer products in an unbiased manner so you can gain insight about how your product will be accepted by your target audience, the ones who'll make it or break it. The discipline is so critical most large consumer goods companies have departments dedicated to in-house sensory analysis.

Sensory testing can go beyond the basic flavor and aroma testing to include consumers' emotional reactions to a product.

"It's the best way to find out how well a new idea will be received," says Marino Trevola, referring to sensory evaluation. Trevola is project leader food R&D, Alberto-Culver Co. (www.alberto.com), Melrose Park, Ill, which makes Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning. According to Trevola, data gathered from sensory analysis is essential not only to the development of new products, but also to the successful extension of a well-established line.

The analysis starts with a product concept. Two key questions are: Does this product fit the wants and needs of the consumer? Is there a large enough market? Then a prototype must be created for inside sensory testing. "The objective of inside testing is to hone the product as far as possible," says Trevola. "It can provide valuable insight into consumer acceptability.

To account for understandable bias, you look to score higher on the in-house sensory evaluation than would be the case for the product sent for outside analysis. The bottom line is, no matter how much you think your product will benefit consumers, if it doesn't taste good, they won't eat it."

Sensory analysis is generally divided into three different types of testing:

  • Effective testing -- the gathering of objective facts to determine the difference between two or more products -- generally requires a trained panel.
  • Affective, or consumer testing (also called "hedonic testing") -- requiring the acquisition of subjective data from large numbers of untrained, prospective consumers. (Smaller focus groups also may be used in consumer testing.)
  • Perception testing -- the application of biochemical and psychological theories to explain sensory preferences.

Applying modern statistical analysis to the data gathered by different forms of testing gives insights into consumer behavior and potential acceptance or rejection of products.

"Our Sensory & Product Guidance department is an integral part of our organization," says Mike Lucidi, research program leader, Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellwellness.com) Camden, N.J. "The sensory team conducts consumer testing on products and packaging for brands across the Campbell portfolio, from Campbell's soups, V8 juices and Prego or Pace sauces, to Pepperidge Farm cookies, crackers and breads and Godiva chocolates."

"The ultimate goal is to optimize taste and make the best possible products that delight our consumers," Lucidi continues. "This is based on consumer feedback studies and sound science. A great example is Campbell's work to reduce sodium in our soups without compromising taste."

At Campbell's, the Sensory & Product Guidance team tests both new and existing products to evaluate packaging improvements, shelf and storage life and more. "All research in our Sensory & Product Guidance area is customized based on the needs of the business," adds Lucidi. "That way we can ensure that we are developing the best possible research and testing plan for the particular product."

Independent sensory labs can provide a wealth of information and valuable insight into the reaction of consumers to "new and improved products." This is especially important as new and improved increasingly means more nutritious.

Sensory Spectrum has been applying the latest technology to sensory analysis for more than three decades. The firm divides the process of linking consumer needs with sensory properties into five steps:

  1. Benchmark descriptive analysis of current product with competitors and prototypes. The objective: Document the current product in relationship to competitors and provide direction for product development.
  2. Qualitative research to identify critical consumer attributes or "must haves" for products in the category. The objective: Identify trade offs for various sensory properties.
  3. Product development created prototypes. The objective: Create products that focus on consumer-defined wishes from qualitative studies.
  4. Descriptive analyses on prototypes. The objective: Look at multiple products and see the impact of change on the sensory properties. Select products for further consumer research.
  5. Quantitative study in the form of a central location test. The objective: Measure consumer acceptance of prototypes and determine the next steps.

"The process allows for in-depth feedback from consumers during the process to ensure product development is meeting their needs," explains Rudolph. "Utilizing descriptive analysis allows for the translation of the consumer language into a direction product development understands."

Many health-conscious consumers are interested in healthier fats along with meat and dairy alternatives, and that means checking out soy products. In the early days of soy use, getting consumers to take the soy plunge was challenging.

Sensory evaluation has helped change that. Researchers at 21st Sensory Inc. (www.21stsensory.com), Bartlesville, Okla., enjoy the challenges of a science that blends psychology, statistics and test design considerations to deliver the most focused data possible. They pre-recruit consumers based on client demographics including age, gender, usage patterns and cross section of targeted population segment.

In a particularly crowded market, such as with beverages, testing for comparison to competing products can be critical.

"Descriptive analysis data is like a road map," says Kathleen Rutledge, president/CEO of 21st Sensory. "This data set is what it tastes like while this data set is where you need to be. Rather than hours of trial and error, descriptive analysis can cut bench trials to a fraction of the time. We have conducted hundreds of hours of testing for companies seeking to find alternative oils for trans fats.

"In designed experiments, the sensory data were a means of measuring the effects of different oils on flavor, aroma, appearance and texture and the stability of the products over time. We do studies that help soymilk manufacturers develop products with a more dairylike profile. In other studies, we evaluate meat analogs against the real meat target so the client can see what needs to be tweaked to achieve a product that is more closely aligned with the target," says Rutledge.

Some characteristics of foods are difficult to assess without rigorous testing. How else, for example, can you be certain a unique, salt-free seasoning can serve as an acceptable salt substitute? Researchers at Slk/Selako Oy (www.selako.com), Helsinki, Finland, came up with a unique idea for reducing sodium in foods. The product, known as "Flavomare," uses flavonoids (naturally occurring phytochemicals in foods that protect against oxidative stress) to both flavor and preserve food.

To be certain this innovative and patented product delivered the desirable sensory properties, independent sensory analysis was conducted both at the University of Helsinki and at the University of Hanover in Germany. This allowed Selako to state that Flavomare had both an acceptable salty taste and prevented the "warmed-over" flavor often present in frozen foods. "With rigorous sensory analysis, test results are never only our own opinions," says Lasse Kurppa of Slk/Selako Oy.

The business of Mastertaste (www.mastertaste.com), Teterboro, N.J., is producing high-quality flavors, fragrances and flavor/fragrance ingredients. "Sensory evaluation labs can be used in almost any case where the consumer is the end user," says Christine Chu, senior sensory scientist at Mastertaste. "More and more we are seeing these labs being used in everything from food and personal care to clothing and sports equipment."

Sensory evaluation has been utilized in the food industry for quite a while. The demand for this is intense right now, according to Chu, so much so there are not enough people to fill the demand from companies for sensory scientists. Every year a different trend emerges geared toward creating healthier foods or tweaking the foods we already know and love to increase their nutritional value.

An example of this is the trend in fortification. In a case where you are changing foods to make them healthier, you might need to experiment with several different substitutions. "The goal is to improve the product, which means we want to make it more appealing to the consumer -- in most cases by increasing nutritional value -- while still maintaining the taste and mouthfeel that the consumer is used to," continues Chu.

"At Mastertaste, we use sensory evaluation labs as a tool to support functions in quality assurance, research & development and even in marketing," says Chu. Primarily sensory evaluation labs are used in R&D. These labs are important in new product development, product matching and determining stability and shelf life of a product.

"When we are using ingredients and flavors in applications for our clients, we may source ingredients from different companies or different places to save on cost or simply get the same ingredient from a different source based on availability," she adds. "In this case we use our sensory evaluation labs as a quality assurance function to make sure that the products we give to our clients are acceptable. We can also use the sensory evaluations labs in a marketing sense. These labs can provide information on consumer preferences that can supplement information that food processors may already have about consumer taste preferences."

Among the industry's leading experts in sensory evaluation is the NFL. Not the football NFL, the National Food Laboratory Inc. (www.thenfl.com), Dublin, Calif. The lab uses rigorous quantitative research and reporting procedures to compare and document the taste, smell, appearance or texture of a food, beverage or non-food products.

NFL provides the expertise and facilities for everything from focus groups, online research, guidance tests, local and national central location tests (CLTs) and in-home use tests (IHUTs) with complete screening, test administration and full data analysis and reporting. They also conduct concept/product testing, ethnographies and claims validation.

One of the NFL's areas of expertise is the testing of products requiring a high degree of preparation with attention to detail and test protocols. They have versatile and complete booth and test kitchen facilities.

While acting on a hunch may result in a great product that sells like hot dogs at a ballpark, the price of being wrong can be considerable. Sensory evaluation can bring as much certainty as possible to an uncertain venture to minimize risk and maximize consumer acceptance. The bottom line is to remove as much of the guesswork as possible so that you can launch your brainchild in a lot less time with a lot less stress.

Note to Marketing

"Consumers today are inundated with nutritional information they may or may not understand, causing them to think about their food choices differently," says Marie Rudolph, director of the Spectrum Discovery Center for Sensory Spectrum Inc. (www.sensoryspectrum.com), New Providence N.J. "They are anxious about the food selections they are making for their family while recognizing that changing to the healthier versions of old favorites may result in a tradeoff in taste."

Ideal sensory evaluation should let processors know just how far from the original food a new, healthier version can stray and still be acceptable to the consumer. For example, studies show trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, whole wheat bread is more nutritious than breads made without whole grains and eating too much fast food can cause obesity. A successful sensory evaluation will help determine the balance point between what consumers say they want and what they will eat. The information can then be applied toward developing the key points necessary for communicating the new product's value to consumers.

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