Making sure of sensory characteristics, part 2

by Laurie Gorton, Baking & Snack
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Sensory science at Tate & Lyle addresses today’s most difficult formulating challenges.

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 second of two exclusive Q&A discussions with Baking & Snack, Jason Cohen, PhD, principal scientist in the Sensory Department for Tate & Lyle, covers the challenges of sensory analysis and real-world experience. He also explores reasons why some new products succeed while others fail.

The first part of this Q&A details the work done at the company’s innovation center to make sure applications for its food ingredients meet the highest taste and texture standards.

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 No. 1640 at the 2013 IFT Food Expo in Chicago July 14-16.

Baking & Snack: What are the most challenging flavors and/or textures to get right?

Dr. Cohen: There are still significant challenges to replacing fat, sugar and protein with low-calorie alternatives and delivering the same eating experience. Often, the challenge is to understand how the eating experience can be modified to deliver an equally “liked” experience rather that to “match” the experience of eating full-calorie products.

How do you validate or know when you have developed the optimal product?

We typically conduct experimental designs and map sensory and consumer data across the design space. This allows us to use numerical models to select optimal solutions from the design space.

How do you prevent sensory testing from being influenced by distractions or outside factors?

Tate & Lyle’s newly enhanced facility specifically addresses that challenge. Elements include trained, dedicated in-house descriptive panels, a fully equipped descriptive panel room with 15 stations and a kitchen for controlled product sample preparation and presentation. We also have 16 sensory testing booths that are used with both consumers and in-house employees for discrimination to product preference testing.

Rigorous evaluation of outside influences is always performed before testing, as well as the design of the testing location, to provide the best control possible. For example, if two products happen to look slightly different in color, we can use colored lighting to mask any visual differences so the evaluation is based solely on taste.

How is sensory testing influenced by the demographic group you are interested in or the world’s region in which it is conducted?

In some cases, such as asking consumers to detect which sample is saltier in a paired comparison test, there is little variation between people of different regions. However, consumers of differing demographics can show dramatic variation in food preferences. Identifying your target consumers is very important.

In testing products in other regions, we work with our teams in that area to develop products for consumer evaluations. For example, in Latin America, typically consumers prefer a slightly higher sweetness level. 

Would you consider sensory testing an art or a science, and why?

It’s a science. Sensory results are obtained through:

a) Rigorous method development and validation to ensure reproducibility, repeatability and relevance of tests.

b) Detailed statistical treatments are used to ensure data meets standards for “significant difference.”

c) Complex numerical models are used to fit the data and provide predictions.

If sensory testing is such a science, why do so many new products fail?

Solid feedback from sensory testing is a crucial element in the development of any food product. However, it is only one of many factors across many functions within a company that must to come together to produce a successful new food or beverage.

Four points should be considered:

a) While a great sensory experience can drive the success of a new product, other factors also will have impact, including advertising, distribution, pricing and packaging, to name a few.

b) Most often in product development, timelines and resource availability constrain the amount of sensory experimentation that can be conducted. Developers therefore choose to take calculated risks based on limited data, and these risks sometimes pay off and sometimes do not.

c) The recipe space for any given food product is very large. This means that developers choose to only look at parts of the space and sometimes do not get optimal solutions.

d) The method design space has a lot of parameters associated with it and can therefore take significant resources to develop new methods that deliver insights about how consumers are interacting with foods.

Editor’s note: For Part 1 of this Q&A, check the Related Articles listed below.

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