Sensory scientists may seem to have an easy job. They dispense delicate morsels of food and sips of appealing drinks to willing blindfolded panellists who have been specially trained as testers to identify the almost undetectable characteristics of certain food groups.
These characteristics must be quantified in order to respond to client queries or needs. The senses that contributed to food evaluation (appearance, smell, taste, texture and the trigeminal sense) are used to make informed assessments.
Plant & Food Research
Sensory and consumer scientists at Auckland’s Plant & Food Research are using the results of their research to help industry guide new product development in order to determine what the consumer wants and, importantly, what they are prepared to pay for!
Plant & Food Research is acknowledged as having the largest sensory and consumer science research group in the Southern Hemisphere. They use proven methods to research consumer requirements and are considered to be at the forefront of development of new ways of determining consumer and industry requirements for foods and beverages. Present research includes the breeding of new plant cultivars and expanding the number of new wine styles.
Considering a career as a sensory scientist?
You’ll need a varied background:
- Chemistry, biology and physics for the important science knowledge.
- Statistics for result analysis.
- Psychology (for the human aspect) would also be an advantage.
- A splash of chemical engineering or a pinch of food technology might give you a winning edge.
In contrast with the human side of this science area, a sensory scientist must also be competent in the use of technical sensory measurement techniques such as mass spectrometry (analysing trace chemical components present at levels <1 part per trillion yet still able to deliver important flavours). Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also important as it looks at the inclusion of substances able to influence texture or shelf life of a product (such as water).
A sensory scientist might work on projects for clients involving:
- new product development
- investigating consumer preferences
- determining whether consumers can detect differences when an ingredient in a product is changed
- testing the claims of foodstuff manufacturers
- devising experimental plans so the food industry can set up its own sensory testing
- perception research
- developing improved testing programmes.
Nature of science
Scientists must be able to draw upon a range of skills in their particular area of expertise and have the ability to relate to people from many disciplines.
Watch this YouTube clip where Dr Sara Jaeger of Plant & Food Research shows the molecular sensing lab at work and the work of a sensory scientist.
Find out how new food prototypes containing microencapsulated fish oil are tested by consumers at the Riddet Institute here.
Watch this video clip below about testing the functional and sensory qualities of omega-3 enriched ice cream at the Riddet Institute.
Watch this video clip below with scientists at Plant & Food Research describing how and why they do sensory testing on foods.
Meet an Otago University student studying how consumers respond to food here.
Find out how consumer and sensory science are used in plant breeding at Plant & Food Research here.
Try these activities with your students