Your marketing manager or project supervisor swings by your lab after just eating lunch and having a quick cigarette, tastes your formulation effort and then directs you back to the drawing board. It is almost enough to make a grown food scientist…strangle someone.

Although proper sensory feedback for a new food or beverage may require a “cast of thousands” in regards to consumers who are providing input, a full-time sensory research staff and/or sophisticated statistical software, day-to-day product development and quality control tasks often require a “quick and dirty” approach to evaluating a product's sensory properties. However, efforts to perform as unbiased appraisals of alternate ingredients or of bench-top to scale-up formulation efforts as possible helps to assure that truth--and your company--will be served. A bit of thought, as well as statistics, can help to foster objectivity in sensory evaluations.

In or Out

First you must decide what question you want to answer. Often marketing personnel and brand managers work with market research information in order to determine what consumers want or like. This knowledge is obtained by techniques such as focus groups or mall-intercept studies. According to Anju Holay of Next Step Marketing Research (NSMR, Barrington, Ill.), “Consumer understanding can be enriched by hearing consumers' own language for a category or product. Factors motivating trial, product use, and brand loyalty can also be uncovered by talking directly with the consumer.”

However, early on in the product development process, technical staffs routinely need information on a product's attributes. Taste panelists can be from inside or outside the company, and the studies can be administered by company employees or outside services.

If you decide to use an independent consultant, one such independent contractor suggests approaching your selection as though you were buying a car.

  • Know what your goals are.

  • Discuss the size of your budget.

  • Talk to several companies.

    Academia offers another option. For example, food science departments at colleges and universities may arrange sensory evaluation studies for food companies. Advantages of this service include technical expertise with correct methodologies, avoidance of in-company biases and, often, fees that are less than what a consultant may charge. General disadvantages may include irregular time frames and the limited availability of specific demographic groups.

    Innovative options are also available, depending on the consumer target. For example, Holay suggests testing kids' products and propositions in schools (which can be arranged as a learning experience, an “after-school” activity, and/or an ongoing school activity) or even as part of a Scouting badge requirement. “With a bit of creative thinking as to where your target might gather, many less traditional options may be available. Churches, senior centers, and rotary clubs may provide additional venues for cost-effective, targeted research,” she adds.

    Unprejudiced Options

    All companies use employees to evaluate product at some point. A technologist in a smaller company faces an unwelcome choice when three secretaries, two accountants and the receptionist pick Sample A, but the sales manager and CEO pick Sample B. Also, biases can occur with in-house panels because of employees' vested interest in (or long-time familiarity with) the product.

    For inexperienced sensory panelists, simple likes and dislikes can get in the way more than anything else. Employee training, the design of the test and the application of statistics lessen these concerns.

    Companies may consider using different “levels” of in-house panels. For example, extensively trained descriptive panels can help when guidance on a specific problem is necessary. Semi-trained panels are useful for difference tests, such as triangle and paired comparison. Untrained consumer panels can work for preference tests.

    When administering sensory evaluation tests, you should:

  • Screen panelists for interfering factors such as smoking or colds, more complex demographic information or whether they even regularly eat the sampled food,

    n Find comfortable test locations that minimize noise, odor and other distractions, that provide consistent lighting (artificial lights may work best for this reason), and that inhibit panelist interactions,

  • Present samples with three-digit codes, in irregular order and on plain white service ware. Having the samplers cleanse their palates with water and eat unsalted crackers between samples is helpful. What to do after sampling the food--to spit or not to spit--is still a question, and

  • Encourage participation as part of an employee's job, regardless of his actual duties. Rewards can include food treats and letting employees see test results.

    Tests should be designed so that statistics can be applied. One researcher estimates that 80% of all companies use hedonic and triangle tests. Complicated formats are more feasible today than in years past, due to the availability of computer packages.

    With some consideration and effort, you can secure impartial and valuable sensory information.

    One final thought: If you do wish panelists to spit after sampling, be sure to provide empty containers.