Unlocking Flavor Secrets: Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sensory Analysis

by | Mar 21, 2024

Your benchtop samples are getting rave reviews from your colleagues. You’ve dialed in a winning flavor, and internal assessments show the taste and appearance remained stable during shelf tests. Before you move into scale-up, however, the project brief recommends sensory analysis. Sensory testing your food or beverage innovations helps ensure you satisfy taste expectations and achieve in-market success. Our technical team outlined guidelines you can use to evaluate your next new formulation.

THE IMPORTANCE OF A SENSORY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

Taste is a sensory system that involves people’s eyes, ears, nose, and tongue, and the ideal evaluative framework will address all four dimensions. Appearance often initiates the perception of flavor, but aroma and sound also play a role in the acceptability of some foods or beverages. 

5

For example, a bitter aroma that’s acceptable for hot coffee may not fit with an energy drink.

5

An oat-based cracker delivering a soft bite may be less likely to delight than a crunchier option.

Sensory analysis overlays a scientific process onto people’s experience when eating or drinking. The approach offers formulators a way to objectively measure, quantify, and analyze how foods or beverages look, smell, sound, and taste. Importantly, the sensory evaluation framework can help you control external factors that affect perceptions, such as the surroundings, social environment, branding, and product labeling.

5
5

Noise can also affect taste. According to research, perceptions of aroma and sweet and salty flavors diminish as noise increases.

For valid and consistent sensory analysis results, try to implement the following conditions for each food or beverage sensory test:

  1. An odor-neutral, clean, quiet environment
  2. A room with standardized lighting and temperature
  3. Utensils, plates, cups, and trays that are white or colorless
  4. Individual tasting spaces for evaluators
  5. Randomized product codes for each food or beverage sample
  6. Randomized tasting order for multiple sample evaluations
  7. Standardized evaluation metrics for each sample

YOUR SENSORY ASSESSORS

The people participating in your sensory analysis can range from “newbies” to experts, colleagues, and consumers. Be sure to screen all assessors before the sensory test to determine:

5

Familiarity with the food or beverage evaluated

5

Allergies or sensitivities to ingredients that could be present in the sample

5

Sensory disabilities such as color blindness, anosmia, or ageusia

5

Current health status for conditions like colds or sore throats that would affect the assessors’ ability to smell or taste

Your panelists can be:

5

“naïve,” meeting minimal criteria to participate in the test

5

“initiated” with some experience in sensory evaluations

5

“selected” based on their ability to perform a particular sensory test

5

“expert” based on demonstrated sensitivity or training and ability to consistently and repeatedly assess foods or beverages

Additional screening is essential if you include non-technical people in your sensory panel and want to understand how the product connects with your buyers.

5

Strive to find people who consume the type of food or beverage you’re evaluating.

5

Incorporate characteristics of your core buyers, such as age, socioeconomic level, gender, or regionality.

Ask your sensory assessors to refrain from the following activities for one hour before they participate on a panel to minimize external influences on their tasting abilities:

5

Smoking

5

Using fragrant perfumes or cosmetics

5

Brushing their teeth with refreshing toothpaste

5

Eating refreshing candies or chewing gum

5

Consuming strong beverages such as coffee, alcohol, or eating spicy snacks or foods

Avoid scheduling sensory tests before or immediately after lunch or dinner hours.

Image Credit: Craftsman Industries

CONDUCTING A SENSORY ANALYSIS

The sensory testing process begins by defining what you want to learn from the test. For example, can people tell the difference between the reformulated juice and the current version? Do people prefer the taste of the nutrition bar with Vanilla Flavor #587 or the bar with Vanilla Flavor #824? Which yogurt do people prefer, your formula or the competitor’s formula? How much do people like your new energy drink? How do people describe the taste characteristics of your cookie, and which attributes affect their satisfaction the most?

With your objective defined, you can proceed with the following steps:

  1. Choose the Appropriate Sensory Test
  2. Select Your Sensory Panelists
  3. Prepare the Samples
  4. Conduct the Sensory Test
  5. Analyze the Data
  6. Determine Next Actions

TYPES OF SENSORY ANALYSIS

Sensory testing techniques for food and beverage formulators often focus on identifying differences between or preferences for products. Some sensory analysis extracts detailed descriptions of product attributes. We’ve highlighted a few of the most common sensory tests, but you have many paths you can take to achieve your objectives. Check with your flavor partner to discuss additional ideas for answering your formulation questions!

DISCRIMINATION (DIFFERENCE) SENSORY TESTS

If you’re making an ingredient substitution, a process change, or striving to emulate an in-market product, discrimination testing helps determine if differences are perceptible. Types of differences tests include:

Triangle Test: Assessors will taste three samples, two of which are identical. The panelists must identify the different sample. Usually, the results of a successful triangle test will show no significant differences between the samples. If most tasters correctly discern the different sample, your formula will need additional development.

Triangle Test Tips:  Test a maximum of six samples in a single session to avoid panelist fatigue. Although industry recommendations highlight panel sizes between 10 and 50, eight assessors can provide reliable results.

Duo-Trio Tests: Participants taste a reference sample and then two other samples (one identical to the reference and one different). They must pick the sample that matches the reference. Like the triangle test, a duo-trio test helps determine if a change in ingredients, processing, packaging, or storage affects the sensory experience of your product.

Duo-Trio Test Tips: Although the Duo-Trio test is more straightforward to execute because assessors have a standard against which to compare, you’ll need a minimum of 10 panelists for sufficient data.

Paired Comparison Test: Triangle and duo-trio tests will identify when differences exist between samples but won’t help you understand the underlying reasons for the difference. In a paired comparison test, sensory panelists receive two samples and must tell you which has more of a specific characteristic, such as sweetness, saltiness, or carbonation.

Paired Comparison Test Tips: You won’t have insight into the magnitude of differences between samples, but you can incorporate a preference question to identify the formula people like most. Paired comparison tests aren’t efficient when you have limited time or many samples to evaluate because you’ll need a larger panel (30 or more people) to get reliable results.

AFFECTIVE (ACCEPTANCE OR PREFERENCE) SENSORY TESTS

Affective testing is helpful as you move from concept to benchtop to prove your idea is desirable. The methods also offer valuable insights about the acceptability of your food or beverage innovation during scale-up, with reformulations, or for shelf-life testing. Affective test methods include:

Paired Preference Test: Participants taste two samples and tell you which they prefer.

Paired Preference Test Tips: Unless you need to “force” a choice, be sure to include a “no difference” metric on the panelists’ evaluation forms. You’ll need more than 30 panelists to capture statistically reliable results. For qualitative insights into reasons for preference, consider adding a question asking, “Why did you choose that sample?”

Ranking Test: Assessors will order or rank samples (usually three to six) based on a single attribute, such as sweetness, bitterness, or preference.

Ranking Test Tips: If you have untrained sensory panelists or limited time and budget, a ranking test is efficient and cost-effective. You won’t have visibility into the magnitude of preference, so if you have products with subtle differences, choose an affective test that provides more granular results. Ranking tests require a minimum panel of 30 people.

Hedonic Rating Test:  Sensory panelists will taste a group of samples and rate their experience and overall liking of the food or beverage product. Hedonic rating tests rely on a 9-point scale to measure the degree of liking. Ideally, your panel would include a minimum of 40 people.

Hedonic Rating Test Tips: Focus on five or fewer samples to avoid taste fatigue. In addition to measuring overall liking, your hedonic ratings can address reaction to taste characteristics like texture, sweetness, mouthfeel, and aroma. Consider using three- or five-point Likert scales (too much, just right, too little) for additional insights into the reasons for the hedonic ratings.

DESCRIPTIVE SENSORY TESTS

When you want details about specific differences and attribute intensity, a descriptive test can produce a comprehensive profile of your food or beverage innovation. Descriptive tests are often part of quality control initiatives like storage stability or minimum shelf life. Unlike difference tests, descriptive tests require qualified assessors, usually between three and 12, to produce statistically reliable results. Descriptive sensory tests include:

Simple Descriptive Test:  Panelists will describe a group or individual product aspects (such as appearance, odor, taste, and texture) using ratings or scales. The simple descriptive test helps you check the effect of changing raw materials, formula adjustments, or process changes in production. 

Conventional Profiling: Assessors will qualitatively describe and quantitively measure product characteristics. Conventional profiling is helpful during product development or optimization or for measuring product attributes against standards.

Conventional Profiling Tips: You’ll need a predefined list of sensory terms that panelists can use to evaluate your samples, and then you will need a rating scale to measure attribute intensity. Ideally, you’ll have a minimum of six panelists complete the profiling.

Check All That Apply (CATA) Test:  The CATA approach is useful for evaluating foods or beverages that aren’t complex or when samples differ extensively. Your panelists can include trained or non-experts. Unlike conventional profiling that measures intensity, the CATA test results show the frequency of agreement with attributes.

CATA Test Tips:  You’ll need more panelists to achieve meaningful results with a CATA test, especially if you have untrained assessors. You’ll use a predetermined list of attributes. While longer or shorter lists can produce similar results, we recommend selecting readily understood and the most relevant characteristics to identify potential areas of formulation adjustment.

TECHNOLOGY AND SENSORY ANALYSIS

Even trained sensory panelists have subjective biases that can affect their evaluation of food and beverage samples. Technological advancements now allow formulators to pair sensory analysis with more objective techniques such as:

5

Spectroscopy to measure characteristics that affect taste such as moisture and protein content.

5

Artificial Senses like e-noses or e-tongues that decode the olfactory and taste experiences.

Image: E-Tongue Washington State University

5

Biometric Measurements such as eye tracking, facial expressions, and electroencephalography (EEG) to evaluate emotional and physical responses to foods or beverages.

5

Virtual and Augmented Reality Techniques to create a more “real life” context by integrating virtual elements with the natural world to assess perceptions and emotional responses.

Image: MDPI.com

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT SENSORY ANALYSIS?

If you want to discuss sensory test methodologies or analysis, reach out to the FlavorSum team. Our flavorists and analytical and quality experts can help you define your goals, determine relevant product attributes to measure, and interpret results.

Author

Lisa Jackson

Lisa Jackson, Director of Marketing at FlavorSum, brings more than 30 years of market and consumer research experience to support innovation activities for food and beverage organizations.

Related Blog Posts