There are many factors to be considered in the decision-making process of buying food. Currently, aspects such as brand reputation, nutritional value of the product, sensory experience of the product with the brand, the company’s relationship with the environment and type of packaging, for example, are very important for the purchase decision. In a way that was not observed 50 years ago.
One of the biggest challenges that food formulators around the world face is to make sensorially pleasant, nutritious and healthy products, however, with not much appeal in terms of aroma, flavour, texture and appearance.
And one of the most important steps in this mission is sensory analysis. Whether in the formulation of new products or in the substitution of ingredients in existing formulas, this type of analysis is crucial to predict the attractiveness that the food will have to its target audience.
Therefore, in this blog post we will understand more deeply the importance of sensory analysis for the food industry, in addition to knowing more deeply the methodologies used to make it happen.
Why is sensory analysis used?
The answer to that question may seem obvious at first. However, something still unknown to some people, is that the sensory study of food is a complex science from which a range of very important information can be extracted.
Sensory analysis is characterized as the measurement of attributes involving the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. After all, the experience of consuming a food involves all of them and understanding the relationship of consumers with them can help in the decision of which characteristics should be highlighted in a product.
For example, the crispness of potato chips, related to the hearing sense, is an essential feature when developing a product of this type. It doesn’t matter if the taste, aroma and texture are pleasant. Without the hearing sensation provided by the crispness, potato chips would hardly have the same acceptance.
Like any scientific procedure, one must be careful when conducting a sensory analysis. Among the procedures for it, we can mention:
- Neutrality in the sample’s presentation;
- Elimination of factors that may highlight preconceived ideas by the tasters.
If well conducted, sensory methods can answer the following questions:
- What does the product taste like?
- What are the organoleptic characteristics?
- How can a change in production, packaging or storage affect the sensory characteristics of the food?
- How does my product compare to my competitor’s?
- How can I improve the sensory characteristics of my product?
- Is my quality control being effective?
- Is there a difference between batches?
- How can I promote my product based on its sensory characteristics?
- What are my consumer’s expectations regarding the labelling claim or a new product that I want to launch?
In addition, this type of analysis can help companies, scientists and technologists to predict the sensory characteristics that consumers will encounter in a food.
All intrinsic aspects of a product can be investigated through sensory analysis, such as appearance, colour, shape, size, aroma and taste/flavour. Likewise, aspects extrinsic to the product such as sensory experiences have been increasingly explored.
How to conduct a sensory analysis?
Some basic requirements are necessary to conduct any sensory analysis.
Firstly, the testing site should preferably have individual spaces to accommodate the assessor/taster and samples. The lighting should be natural in most cases or coloured when you want to eliminate the sample’s appearance as a test variable.
The temperature must be maintained around 71°F to 77ºF and the test site must be a certain distance from the place where the samples are prepared, to avoid the contact of the tasters with it.
The time of conducting the test also needs to be taken into account, as the excess or lack of appetite can influence the result of the analysis. The recommendation, therefore, is to conduct the experiment 2 hours before or after meals.
The test procedure must be clearly presented to the judges. The rules must be explained before the analysis begins, reinforcing standard procedures such as cleaning the palate with water, bread or apple between tasting one sample and another and always starting the tasting from left to right.
Sharing information about the product should be avoided before testing, so as not to interfere with the expectations of the tasters. To reinforce this aspect, the samples must be presented in a homogeneous way, reducing the chance of external interferences in the result.
Usually, the judge is taken to the individual booth, samples are delivered along with an assessment form, the procedure and basic information is given by the conductor of the analysis and the booth is closed for the test to take place.
In some cases, such as analyses in which it is desired to obtain the sensory profile of the product, it is necessary to form a trained panel for the analysis, especially to reduce errors and sources of variation. The panel is then recruited based on the suitability of its advisors/judges to the objectives of the specific analysis.
Over the course of a few sessions, the panel is trained in the attributes that will evaluate until a good ability to differentiate the samples and repetition of results is identified by the team, and so the test itself can take place.
What sensory analysis methodologies can be applied?
This will depend on the purpose of the analysis. Basically, there are three types of sensory tests that can be conducted:
The first group is discriminative tests. In these, the objective is to verify qualitative and quantitative differences between samples. They are generally used to check the quality control of a product and whether the exchange of a key ingredient in a formulation affects the sensory characteristics of a food.
Affective tests, on the other hand, are used to express the consumer’s subjective impressions in relation to the product. As such, it can have high variability in results. Therefore, to minimize this effect, a large number of tasters is necessary – between 80 and 120 people are recommended. Affective tests are widely used in the formulation of new products.
The third type of test is the one of preference. As its name suggests, it will test whether one sample is preferred over another. Here, it is not being evaluated whether the judges can distinguish differences between samples, as in the first group, but which one is more attractive for them.
The sensory profile of a product is extremely important to define its acceptance with consumers. The results of this type of analysis can be used in several areas of the industry, from research and development to marketing.
Knowing the norms and methodologies of sensory tests helps to select the ideal experiment for the established objective, in addition to helping to minimize sources of errors and variations to ensure accurate and reliable results.