Efficient food sensory technology for sweets and snacks
Interview on ProSweets 2021 with Bianca Schneider-Häder, DLG Food Centre
- Which role does food sensory evaluation play in the sweets and snacks section?
Food sensory evaluation is basically a thoroughly important quality dimension. According to the "Nutritional Report 2019" of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, for 99 percent of the respondents as far as eating is concerned taste is the essential factor. This cognition applies to a particular degree for luxury foods such as sweets and snacks. Here the taste and consistency have to satisfy the consumer expectations without any limitations!
Sensory evaluation is thus undisputedly an important tool in terms of product development and modification as well as in the scope of the quality assurance. Empirically consumers only continue buying foodstuffs if – in addition to the cost and product concept – the experienced multisensory enjoyment in combination with the appearance, taste, aroma and texture/haptics satisfies the personal expectations.
Hence, a professional food sensory evaluation both in terms of an analytical process with trained experts as well as in the scope of market research in collaboration with the consumers is more important than ever in the sweets and snacks segment particularly against the background of the tough competitive environment. A sensory evaluation that develops the recipes and product profiles in a way that doesn't suit the consumer's demands and which possibly adapts the product in line with very strict stipulations, won't satisfy the consumers' requirements in the end. These products will ultimately stay on the shelves unsold. This can be of no interest to anyone.
- How is the Corona pandemic currently affecting food sensory aspects within the companies?
Like other disciplines the food sensory technology is faced with the great challenge of continuing to reliably master its tasks against the background of in some cases extremely altered framework conditions. In the course of the Corona pandemic, the crisis or emergency plans of the respective establishments have come into effect. In addition to the strict observance or tightening of the applicable hygiene requirements on the establishment's premises this also involves above all the minimisation of personal contact between the staff working at the production location. The specialised workers and managers are often divided up into fixed teams here, who without mutual personal contact oversee the production shifts and system-relevant activities in alternation. Staff that is not urgently needed to maintain the production on-site are sent to work in the home office, on vacation or instructed to take leave to reduce their overtime.
Thus, in many places the activities of the sensory analysts, which involve taking measures to ensure the product quality such as controlling incoming raw material, processes and end products, are reduced. Projects that go beyond this such as product development, shelf-life and product stability tests, competitor comparisons or the likes are initially being put on ice. As such, the usual panel work with consumers and with experts has more or less come to a standstill.
- How can sensory tests and training be carried out in the present situation?
Times of crisis notoriously offer potential for alternatives. For example, drawn-out decision-taking processes are frequently faster under pressure and the courage to try out something new sometimes lets misgivings fade into the background. In many businesses the sensory technology experts are reacting accordingly and have adapted their work processes. The opportunities the digitalisation offers play an important role here.
The observance of hygiene regulations has already become part of the routine and adhering to the safety distance has been solved relatively quickly by erecting partitions and forming fixed teams. Sensory panelists, whether consumers or skilled testers, can thus currently sample foods in the sensory labs again in many establishments depending on the sensory methods implemented. The size of the groups has been reduced and as a result the number of test runs carried out increased in order to achieve the statistically required number of participants. As such, the routine tasks of the daily sensory quality tests were able to be continued also during the lockdown.
In addition to this, companies not only implement home-use tests (HUT) for the consumer tests section but also for experts, which enables totally contactless testing. Here, the test products are either delivered to the homes of the testers or made available for collection at a central location or alternatively the products are purchased by the tester online or in the local supermarket. The testing and sampling is then carried out individually according to a pre-defined assignment. Or one meets up on a digital level per Skype, MS Team or comparable tools, discusses the procedure and samples the items at the same time live depending on the sensory method. Whereas the test results were noted down in paper form to-date in some establishments, over the course of the pandemic digital solutions have since been found. Whether the test protocols are sent to the head of the panel per e-mail or whether online tools or ideally special sensory software are used, which facilitate the statistic evaluation via an automated data processing.
An intensive and accurate briefing of the testers, both in terms of their personal behaviour during the sampling as well as regarding the spatial conditions and light conditions at the place of testing in addition to a well-thought out sample logistics to ensure the quality of the test products are critical success factors in this digital and contactless approach, which aim to continue achieving a high and reliable quality in the results of sensory tests.
- How will the food sensory section develop in the future, also with a view to crisis situations?
Food sensory evaluation will like other areas of activities within the companies also become increasingly more digital and will be more strongly interlinked with other sections. However, this does not mean that all sampling will be carried out online or at a distance in future or that the hitherto normal sampling in sensory laboratories will be completely done away with.
But without doubt many sensory analysts will in future replace the test protocols that are in some cases still in paper form with digital alternatives and in this way reduce media disruptions and error rates as well as considerably accelerate the data transmission and result processing. The implementation of special sensory software will also be pushed in order to further increase the degree of automation. Digital, contactless web-based alternatives will enhance the present laboratory and central location tests at the testing sites.
The success of the former start-up Lizza GmbH and the online platform FlavorWiki demonstrates the fact that it is already possible today to carry out food sensory evaluation to a large extent using a contactless process particularly in the consumer research section. These results were presented to us during the Sensory online conference of the DLG Food Day in August 2020. Especially in the light of the current crisis, both are benefiting from their strong social media presence and the intensive involvement of their online communities via digital tools, sensory home-use tests and automated customer surveys. In this way, the product development at Lizza realises a time to market of one week.
At FlavorWiki, 350,000 consumers currently form the global taste community. Via its crowdsourcing approach, FlavorWiki offers the possibility to enquire about the perception and expectations of consumers regarding the quality-determining taste factors of a foodstuff in a targeted manner - all of which occurs web-based and via the QR code on the product. The product profiles provided by the testers in the course of "virtual sampling" and their taste preferences are the basis for big data. Via targeted data analyses and machine learning, companies but also the participants themselves can draw valuable insights from this data.
Whereas for example manufacturers can draw fast conclusions on the acceptance of new products, new recipes or modifications, on request the consumers receive targeted product recommendations based on their individual taste preferences and profiles. This leads to a clear win-win situation, which is attracting more and more interest within the industry and worldwide.
It remains to be said: Via online tools and the social media, the digitalisation offers food sensory evaluation interesting possibilities and potential for more efficiency as well as a closer exchange with the consumers.