Rooted in product manufacturing, the field of sensory evaluation has grown rapidly in the last decades. One of the reasons for this is that both the food and beverage industries have shifted from a production-oriented business model to a market-driven one in which discerning consumers define product quality. In order to differentiate themselves in a global and competitive environment where choices abound, companies are increasingly relying on objective, science-based quality methods to meet customer expectations.
Experts agree that “sensory tests provide useful information about the human perception of product changes” and “reduce risk and uncertainty in decision making.” Well implemented, in-house sensory evaluation programs allow a company to gain and maintain a competitive advantage.
Current industry trends include the development of consumer driven product specifications. Companies are also implementing sensory evaluation programs to meet vendor and supplier requirements. Where sensory testing is deemed too time consuming to validate product lot acceptance, consumer driven sensory data is correlated to analytical QC data leading to the development of quality control measures that can be easily monitored on the production line.
The choice of a particular sensory test is based on the sensory nature of the food product as well as the company’s strategic objectives and budget. While simple discrimination test methods identify a statistically significant difference between products, descriptive analysis relies on a trained sensory panel to characterise and quantify product differences. With hedonic tests, the objectives are to determine whether products are liked and to identify the ones that are preferred by panelists. This last test utilises a consumer panel representative of the product’s target market.
Since sensory evaluation is a scientific tool, the quality of the sensory information is directly related to the quality of the generated data. The choice of a particular test is based upon clearly defined objectives as well as good design of experiments. Sensory panel performance (acuity and training) as well as sound data analysis are also key to obtaining meaningful information for decision making.
The use of sensory tests fits multiple purposes in industry. One of the main quality objectives is to ensure that products are free of defects (absence of taints and off-flavours) and meet supplier, vendor and consumer requirements. A second quality objective is to validate that a change in process or raw materials and ingredients result in a sensory change that is accepted by the consumer. In its more sophisticated form, sensory evaluation can correlate process parameters or product formulations to sensory attributes. This, in turn, helps businesses reach strategic decisions regarding the purchase of equipment, the adoption of new manufacturing processes, raw materials, processing aids and ingredients. Understanding the relationship between process times and their resulting product sensory attributes can yield increased process efficiencies. Sensory evaluation also plays a key part in the new product development cycle in the sense that it complements market research by validating consumer acceptance of or preference for new product characteristics. There is also a human element to the practice of sensory evaluation in industry: it encourages better communication between business functions and leads to better in-house product knowledge.
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