Senses, tastes, perceptions: introduction to sensory analysis
The science of the perfect product
We all know that our senses are the tools through which we perceive the world around us. Through them we unconsciously and consistently gather an incredible amount of information that allows us to build mental models of the reality and express judgments and evaluations. This process sits at the basis of human evolution: if it is true that every one of us starts acquiring information through the senses the instant we are born, it is equally true that even before our birth we have a great deal of information stored in our genetic code, which reflects a more general behaviour of our species.
Let’s put an example here. Each of us has its own taste for bitter and sweet flavours in food, but it is true that we have an enormously higher sensitivity to bitter than we have for sweet. We also know, both from research and from common knowledge, that we tend to prefer sweet over bitter things. This is because in nature, most of the poisonous compounds have a bitter taste. This caused subjects extremely sensitive and averse to bitter to avoid consuming poisonous foods, thus preventing deadly consequences and preserving the future of the species by passing on this information in the genetic code of their descendants.
The information acquired during evolution is now at the basis of the choices we make every day, influencing our behaviour, tastes and purchasing habits.
All companies producing goods for human use or consumption should take these aspects into consideration when formulating their products. This would be the ideal world but, in the real world, very often companies rely on the sensory skills of a single super-expert to define the formulation of their products (e.g. the cheesemaker, the master brewer, the oenologist, etc.). This practice unfortunately does not yield optimal results. According to a study published by Buisson, up to 75% of new products placed on the market does not survive the first year of sales and is pulled off the shelves. It doesn’t take a business degree to understand that this is pretty bad.
This happens because probably the super-trained senses of the expert do not reflect the general opinion of the consumer. In other words, there’s the taste of the oenologist, who has been tasting wine every day for several years, has a degree on the subject and knows everything about wine defects and varieties, and there’s the common mortal’s taste, aka, the consumer. Moreover, sometimes the product evaluation sessions lack proper methodology and, as a result, many mistakes can be made, both psychological and physiological, which will most certainly end up compromising the final results.
This is why that large companies do not entrust life-or-death decisions on their product to a single individual, but use sensory analysis to understand the opinion of consumers and obtain objective results.
Sensory analysis is a scientific discipline, taught in colleges all over the world. It’s used to measure the sensations perceived through the senses. It provides a series of standardized techniques and methodologies that allow to obtain objective, reliable and verifiable results. Sensory analysis focuses more on the judgment of a group of people (panel) rather than of one single expert. This approach returns undoubtedly more representative and more reliable data which is processed with modern statistical tools in order to obtain reliable, sound and significative results.
If this process may seem expensive, complex or time-consuming, try to imagine how expensive and painful can be to find out too late that our product has not met the taste of consumers. Or think how much a company can save by modifying the production process (for instance, reducing cooking time) of a product without having the consumer notice any difference. Plenty other examples can be made: replacing an ingredient without altering the taste. Think of palm oil vs other plant-based fats. All this can be achieved through sensory science applications. The diffusion of modern information technologies also allows to facilitate and simplify the use of these methodologies, significantly reducing the costs associated with them.