Making sure of sensory characteristics, part 1

by Dan Malovany, Baking & Snack
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Sensory science gets prime-time attention at Tate & Lyle.

The company established a Commercial and Food Innovation Center at its new headquarters in Hoffman Estates, IL. Earlier this year, it opened its doors to an in-depth tour by industry media, which included an extensive briefing on sensory analysis, consumer trend tracking and analytical capabilities.

In the first of two exclusive Q&A discussions with Baking & Snack, Jason Cohen, PhD, principal scientist in the Sensory Department for Tate & Lyle, detailed the work done at the center to make sure applications for its food ingredients meet the highest taste and texture standards.

The second part covers the challenges of sensory analysis and real-world experience. Dr. Cohen also explores reasons why some new products succeed while others fail.

Dr. Cohen received his doctorate in neuroscience from the Institute for Sensory Research at Syracuse University. He has more than 15 years of experience applying scientific knowledge about human psychophysics and physiology to development of new and innovative consumer products, research methods and instruments. Prior to joining the food ingredients industry, he worked at consumer goods companies including Alberto Culver/Unilever and Kimberly-Clark. During his time at Syracuse University, he obtained practical, hands-on experience in consumer sensory testing.

Tate & Lyle will be in booth 1640 at the 2013 IFT Food Expo in Chicago July 14-16.

Baking & Snack: How does someone become an expert in sensory testing?

Dr. Cohen: Well-qualified sensory scientists often have academic backgrounds where they learn sensory science theory. This is then combined with hands-on experience. While I have a PhD in neuroscience, which is a bit unusual in the food industry, it’s about applying known sensory methodology techniques to meet project objectives. The focus of my research was on the sense of touch. How you conduct consumer research is the same whether you are testing touch (applicable to texture evaluations), taste or other sensory inputs.

What are the various ways in which sensory testing can be used to develop or reformulate products?

Project teams use sensory testing in every step of the product development cycle. This includes the evaluation of simple ingredients to the final finished product. Our food and sensory scientists and culinary and pastry chefs can collaborate to develop products from concept ideation to a consumer’s plate.

How was the sensory testing lab designed to conduct these various types of testing?

Tate & Lyle’s new sensory facility was developed to be a dedicated, fully functional sensory center capable of preforming a wide variety of tests. This includes descriptive analysis, discrimination testing, consumer focus groups and affective tests, which evaluate product acceptability or consumer preferences. Additionally, state-of-the-art software allows management and analysis of sensory data, enabling customized global surveys.

What tests are most reliable in refining a product?

Deciding the best test to use depends on factors such as the objectives for the project.

For example, we may use a duo-trio test if the objective is to see if a noticeable difference appears when an alternative ingredient is used in a product. A descriptive panel may be used to tell you what that difference is. A paired-comparison may be used to detect which of two samples is sweeter.

What is the difference between sensory testing by professional taste testers and regular consumers?

Both untrained and inexperienced consumers as well as professional panelists provide valuable information. The type of panel used depends on a project’s objectives. The descriptive panelists at Tate & Lyle have been highly trained. This allows them to detect smaller product differences compared with untrained consumers. Consumers, especially segmented users of specific products, provide information related to preference and liking based on their experience with the product.

How do you qualify to be a professional taste tester? How do you recruit them?

When qualifying candidates to receive training, Tate & Lyle uses a rigorous screening process that involves not only evaluation of a potential panelist’s aptitude for differentiating tastes but also appraisal of their ability to provide detailed descriptive information on products sampled.

Do they every burn out? How do you know when to replace a taste tester?

We constantly monitor the performance of our panelists against known standards to assess their performance. If a panelist’s response starts to deviate from the standard, we will work with them to identify the root cause to help them improve their performance.

Editor’s note: Look for Part 2 of this Q&A in a coming issue of Formulations Update, or check the Related Articles listed below.

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