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Sensory Pros Debunk Myths

BY: Mary Ellen Kuhn
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Some of IFT’s sensory experts assembled bright and early Sunday morning, July 17, to clear up some of the confusion surrounding sensory research, presenting a symposium titled “Sensory Myth Busters.” And by the time the hour-long session was complete, it was clear that when it comes to busting myths about sensory testing, IFT16 scientific and applied session presenters are indeed the ones to call.

Presenters Janet McLean, a food scientist at beverage marketer Diageo Plc, Christopher Simons, a faculty member at The Ohio State University, and Chris Findlay, chairman of sensory analysis company Compusense, discussed the relative merits of testing in highly controlled sensory booth environments versus testing in less controlled scenarios more akin to “real life” environments.

Women in coffee shopSimons made a strong case for the benefits of conducting sensory testing of products in the types of settings in which they might normally be consumed. Stripping away context can reduce the validity of sensory test findings, he claimed. “The reality is most of us don’t eat in a closet under red light,” said Simons. “Usually we’re evaluating food in contextually relevant situations.”

His research has shown that when consumers were asked to assess preferences of a variety of coffee brands, both in a sensory booth setting and in a virtual coffee house setting, the coffees most often served in a coffee house scored better in that setting than when they were tested in the booth. Simons has also conducted tests of cookie preferences in a virtual kitchen and of alcoholic beverages in a virtual bar, and those tests too produced findings that were more reliable than those conducted in controlled booth settings.

“What I hope to convince you of is that actually context matters,” Simons told the session’s sizable audience. “Testing in a contextually relevant scenario is the best way to get actionable guidance.”

McLean’s presentation was designed to elucidate some of the benefits sensory booth testing can afford. She affirmed that in some cases at least, testing done in such controlled settings—which free sensory panelists from outside distractions—can be cost-effective and time-saving and will yield beneficial results. She also noted that the use of traditional sensory booth red lights can play a valuable role in correcting color in product samples. In addition, she noted that removing sources of variability in testing situations does not always yield the most reliable results.

Findlay said that at his company, he’s experimented with a variety of booth settings over the years. The current Compusense sensory lab is in an open environment.

Findlay summarized his takeaway message to the audience with these three recommendations:

Apply the KISS principle, which in this case is “keep it simple, sensory scientists.” In other words, he said, get your question right in the beginning.

  1. Make it actionable. When conducting testing, what you do with the test findings matters.
  2. Always apply best practices. “But,” Findlay noted, “the thing you have to be aware of is that best practices evolve.”

The symposium marked the start of what will be an annual myth busting series, and based on the number of attendees on hand at the 7:15 a.m. start time and their strong participation in a question-and-answer period as the session concluded, it seems clear that the concept has great potential.

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