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Creating Good Food: Art First, Science Second

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It requires an artist’s skill to put together the right combination of flavors based on cultural influences and preferences, and to innovate to create a gustatory masterpiece. Well, maybe. Or maybe you can end up with a product nobody likes. A century ago, things like this were left entirely up to chance.

 

Before any manufacturer produces a delicious, cost- effective, and profitable new product on a commercial scale, he would like some assurance that the product will be accepted by intended buyers. Great product + mismatched buyer = disaster. Such is the fate of a lot of well known food brands we used to like.

 

Market acceptance is one aspect of product development that must not be left to chance. The highest amount of accuracy is needed and, fortunately, science can pick up where art leaves off.

 

Science of Sensory Evaluation

Sensory evaluation is the science of measuring human response to sensory stimuli. In the most basic terms, it tells us whether a group of people will like or dislike a certain product. Why not just call it “Taste Preference Tests” or “Flavor Evaluation”? Because the appreciation of food goes beyond mere taste and flavor. A good chef will tell you that appearance and texture greatly affect overall appreciation of a dish.

 

Sensory evaluation aims to quantify every factor that affects how people appreciate food. These factors include almost every aspect of appearance, taste, aroma, texture, temperature, even the sound food makes as you bite into it. Psychological and physiological factors that affect the acceptance of a product are also considered, such as cultural background, bias, age, and even gender.

 

Yes, the way we appreciate food is affected by whether we are male or female. This is one part of life where men and women are not equal. In general, females of child-bearing age are preferred evaluators since they are more sensitive to flavors. Sensory evaluation techniques are also used to study the effect of “comfort foods” on especially distressed groups.

 

Misconception

Although consumers are familiar with product evaluation tests, as popularized by TV commercials (The leading brand vs. Brand X), very few are familiar with the science behind it. This is because the complex mathematics of probabilities and variables are never shown except for that tiny footnote at the end of the commercial that says something like “Results are significant at 5% levels.”

 

This leads to a common misconception among some manufacturers that evaluating a product can be done by anyone, and that accurate results can be achieved by just one or two evaluations. As a result, business owners will usually rely on their own taste preferences in making go or no-go decisions on a food product. One food manufacturer that approached us for help was ready to invest millions in a product he just tasted a couple of weeks before!

 

In reality, product evaluation is based on probabilities, and the accuracy of the results is based on numerous trials using both expert evaluators and target consumers. The results of these tests are then interpreted by experts based on complex mathematical equations.

 

Sensory Expert Is a Filipino

One of the world’s leading experts in the field of sensory evaluation is a Filipino. Her name is Dr May Gatchalian and she (literally) wrote the book on Sensory Evaluation in the Philippines.

 

Dr Gatchalian saw the need to put the science of sensory evaluation into the context of different economies. She noted the absence of local books and reference material that could be used by the different industries in the 1970s.

 

At the time, foreign books and references simply had way too many elements that were out of reach for smaller industries in the Philippines. This led the doctor to publish the first Filipino-authored book on the subject in 1981, elevating “patikim” into a science.

 

Since then, Gatchalian’s tome has been used by research and development specialists, quality control experts, scientists, and students throughout the country. On March 20, she and several coauthors will launch the third edition of the book.

 

The new edition contains updates on the technologies available to a sensory scientist, more examples of sensory score sheets, sample calculations, a larger, easier-to-read format, and several new chapters. The book will be launched at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations (SOLAIR) Auditorium.

 

Experts from both the food industry and the scientific community expect the publication of this new edition to spur the science of sensory evaluation to greater heights in a country where the appreciation of food is very important.

Print ed: 03/09

 

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