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Trends in food sensory science

Sarah Kemp and Joanne Hort chart the rise of sensory science as a key discipline in determining consumer food choices.

What is sensory science?
Successful innovation is vital for company survival and growth, yet it is estimated that 75-90% of new food and beverage products fail in their first year. Sensory properties of food and beverages are key benefits that must be liked and preferred by consumers for repeat purchase and hence market success.

Food sensory science is a multidisciplinary field investigating how humans perceive and respond to food and beverages. It is applied throughout the NPD process to link sensory attributes to ingredients, benefits, values and emotional elements of the brand to design products to meet the sensory quality preferences of sensory-based consumer segments. Sensory science is also applied in QA to set and meet consumer-relevant sensory specifications. In marketing, sensory science can help ensure sensory properties work in synergy with brand communication and advertising, and is also used to support sensory-based marketing claims.

Sensory evaluation is the main method of analysis in sensory science and is defined as ‘a scientific method used to evoke, measure, analyse and interpret those responses to products as perceived through the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing’. In the early years, sensory assessment relied upon ‘golden tongue’ experts, such as brew masters, wine tasters, tea tasters and cheese makers, to guide product development and quality assurance. These experts were reasonably successful when the marketplace was less competitive. Sensory evaluation has evolved to meet today’s market challenges and is now a sophisticated toolbox consisting of objective methods (discrimination testing and descriptive analysis) to characterise the sensory properties of products, and subjective methods to assess consumers’ affective responses, such as liking and preference(1). The power of sensory evaluation is realised when sensory and consumer data are combined to reveal insights into the way sensory properties drive consumer acceptance. Combining sensory data with physical, chemical, formulation and process variables enables products to be designed to deliver appropriate, optimal consumer benefits. A sophisticated array of statistical modelling techniques has been developed to support these applications, which has resulted in a new field of statistics called sensometrics.

Organisation of sensory science
Sensory science is a relatively new discipline that is still defining its field, expanding its role and developing an organisational network. Global Sensory and Consumer Connection (GSCC) is a newly-established network enabling existing sensory groups to collaborate on important global issues in the field. It is focused on three initiatives: professional development leadership, communication and student involvement.

At a regional level, the Society of Sensory Professionals (SSP) is focused on the US, but is open to members from around the world and classes itself as a largely virtual entity, hosting a sensory wiki. The US has one of the longest standing sensory societies: The Institute of Food Technologists Sensory and Consumer Sciences Division (IFT SCSD). The European Sensory Science Society (E3S) was founded in 2011 by twelve European national sensory societies. There is no regional sensory body in Asia as yet.

Many countries have national bodies. In the UK, the Institute of Food Science and Technology Sensory Science Group (IFST SSG) is a thriving association, with five working groups: Education & Accreditation, Ethical and Professional Standards, Events, Communication and Student. It set up a formally-recognised accreditation scheme for sensory training courses in 2004, which has Foundation and Intermediate levels, and a Register of Professional Sensory Scientists to recognise advanced sensory achievement.

The sensory science meeting programme consists of the global, bi-annual Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium and three regional conferences held in the alternate year to Pangborn: EuroSense, SSP and SenseAsia. Sensometrics is also held in the Pangborn off-year.

There are several journals devoted to sensory science, including the Journal of Food Qualityand Preference, Journal of Sensory Studies and the Journal of Textural Studies.

Many other journals include articles on sensory science, such as those related to food, flavour, perfumery, the chemical senses, perception, psychophysics, psychology and neuroscience.

Sensory standards are published by the International Standards Organisation via ISO TC/34 SC 12 Sensory Analysis. Some national standards agencies choose to adopt ISO standards, as does the British Standards Institute. The American Standards for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International Committee E18 on Sensory Evaluation is a notable exception, being a dynamic, prolific and wide-ranging group that meets twice a year to work on American standards in sensory evaluation.

Trends and future themes in food sensory science
Sensory science has always been a dynamic discipline, evolving to meet the needs of industry and society. It is therefore not surprising that current emerging trends and future themes in food sensory science reflect the demands of global industry, increasing populations and ever changing demands of today’s consumers.

Global food security and sustainability
Currently over 800 million people have inadequate access to safe, nutritious food. The demand for food continues to grow with the global population and is predicted to increase by 70% by 2050. The challenge is to provide a sustainable and secure supply of good quality food. Currently there is much focus on volume and nutritional quality, but there is a key role for sensory science in ensuring that solutions to maintain the world’s food supply are sensorially acceptable. Cheap, nutritious, available food must taste good enough, otherwise opportunities to feed those in need will be lost and there will be unacceptable amounts of food waste.

Health and wellness
Where there is sufficient food, the challenge is in providing heathier products. Sensory scientists have been involved for many years in ensuring that low fat, low sugar, high fibre foods match their less healthy counterparts for sensory quality. However, even with the availability of these products on the market, diet-related health problems are still increasing. The focus is now on developing more innovative solutions that deliver new and different sensory experiences that are healthy in themselves. For example, 2013 saw the launch of several frozen fruit and vegetable snacks, and a large increase in the offering of low calorie, flavoured popcorn snacks. Alternatives to salt for enhancing flavour are being launched, including Knorr® flavour pot gels and the use of ingredients to enrich umami taste.

Individuals are likely to engage with and regularly buy a product, if they believe it will increase their health and well-being. Research methods to study health and wellness are being developed. Physical health is relatively easy to measure but what is wellness? Wellness has been described as a subjective feeling of how happy or well you feel and is often linked to a general subjective feeling of how happy you are with your life and/ or the progress you are making towards your personal goals(2). Food is associated with wellness through its effects on pleasure, satisfaction and mood as well as a direct effect on an individual’s health. Indeed, feelings of wellness post eating may impact on level of food intake and hence may have consequences for overeating(3). The challenge for sensory scientists is to work with psychologists to develop methods for measuring feelings of wellness associated with food consumption and to apply these to the design of foods that increase health and wellbeing.

Global consumers
With globalisation of markets and rapid growth in the East, there is a continuing need to understand regional and global sensory preferences and to develop methods that work across different cultures and languages, so that products can be designed for delivery to consumers on a global scale.

In contrast customisation is a global trend influencing the food industry. The ‘free from’ categories are just one example, targeting niche consumer groups with particular nutritional needs. This trend is predicted to continue, going beyond traditional consumer segments to customisation at the individual level. Therefore, understanding individual needs and sensory preferences is becoming increasingly important. Research on the physiological mechanisms of sensory perception is elucidatingthe genetic basis of taste and smell, making individual sensory customisation a real possibility. In a recent headline, the Chief Technology Officer at The Coca-Cola Company predicted that the company would be producing personalised beverages using genomics in the very near future  (4).

Improving foods for the elderly
As we age, our senses of taste and smell typically decline, making food less appealing, which can have an impact on nutrition, health and well-being. This can be compounded by poor dental health, making appropriate food texture important. As the profile of western populations becomes older, understanding sensory perception across an increasingly elderly population is becoming more important.

Measurements related to flavour perception can be made directly from the brainOur understanding of how the brain works is progressing rapidly. The field of neuroscience is helping to explain flavour perception as functional magnetic resonance imaging can identify areas of the brain that respond to a particular stimulus. As techniques in this area improve, we are learning more about how our brain processes information concerning the sensory properties of food. For example, it has recently been shown that fat reduces cortical response to flavour (5) and that individual differences in response, such as Prop taster status, are clearly represented across different areas of the brain (6).

Measurements related to flavour perception can be made directly from the brain so does this make sensory and consumer panels redundant? Brain imaging does not articulate what the brain perceives and so we still need panellists to help us interpret what differences in cortical activation actually mean. Some advocate that brain imaging is somehow a better, more ‘direct’ and ‘precise’ indication of consumer likes and dislikes. However, consumers are very good at articulating their preferences using basic techniques, such as surveys. What they find more difficult is articulating why they have particular preferences. At the current time, brain imaging techniques cannot answer this question, whereas sensory evaluation can be applied to powerful effect. In order to understand and predict preference trends in consumer segments, a consumer sample of more than 100 participants is necessary. Brain imaging studies are currently limited by time and cost constraints to a much smaller number of participants, so consumer panels will be needed for the foreseeable future.

Emotional marketing of food Increasingly, food innovation is moving from selling a product to selling an experience, which for maximum impact is emotional, interactive and often has a particular context associated with it (7). Examples include a chocolate bar that provides not only an amazing taste but hedonistic pleasure in the form of indulgent time for yourself; or a pizza meal shared with the family in a fun, friendly restaurant. There is a need to understand how sensory properties relate to the emotional aspects of the product, the usage experience and the brand, so that foods can be designed with the required emotional benefits. Sensory properties are being recognised as part of the brand and attempts are already being made to protect intellectual property in this area through patenting and trademarking.

Recent studies have shown that measuring emotional response to sensory properties gives a deeper insight into our relationship with food. For example, different formulations of blackcurrant cordial tested blind were equally liked, but elicited different emotional responses from different consumers (8). Most emotional lexicons were developed for clinical settings and are not appropriate for food, but sensory science has begun to develop food-relevant methods for measuring emotion (9).

Online social networking
A paradigm shift in food product innovation is occurring through the use of on-line social networking that is enabling companies to carry out rapid, open innovation directly in partnership with consumers (10). Crowd-sourcing has been used to suggest new food products, ingredients, menus, brands and advertising. A notable example of sensory-related crowd-sourcing is the Walkers Snacks Ltd campaign to co-create innovative flavours for crisps. Sensory science is adapting its methodologies to this new environment.

Corporate role of sensory science
New corporate models will emerge with a single, fully integrated function comprising all those working on consumer understanding so that sensory scientists are partners in innovation, sharing a common goal to identify and satisfy consumer needs.

Developments in techniques
Rapid approaches
As product innovation becomes faster, sensory and consumer information is demanded more quickly. New ways of carrying out traditional techniques are being identified, such as rapid methods for descriptive analysis, including flash profiling, Napping® and polarised sensory positioning. Consumer panels are increasingly being used to carry out tests traditionally undertaken by trained panels, which can save time, costs and resources, when used appropriately.

New technology
Computerisation and the internet continue to facilitate research, e.g., rapid data collection; rapid feedback; sophistication of modelling with large, complex data sets; better trendspotting, databasing and datamining; objective analysis of qualitative data and consumer-written text using text analytic software, etc. Technological innovations continue to provide more opportunities for data collection. The internet has facilitated faster home use testing of products. Wireless handheld devices enable data to be collected anywhere and analysed more quickly. Social media is a rich source of immediate information. Consumers are able to have real conversations in situ about products that they are consuming. The challenge is how to extract meaningful data from such conversations.

Realistic contexts
As innovation moves towards delivering a product within the context of an emotional experience, so understanding consumer behaviour and motivations in particular contexts is important. Traditional methodologies are being modified to make them more realistic, such as the use of written and imagined scenarios (11) and bespoke virtual reality environments in central location tests. Researchers are moving to more natural and ecologically valid locations for testing, such as The Restaurant of the Future in Wageningen in the Netherlands and the restaurant at the Paul Bocuse Institute in France, where cameras and viewing screens enable the observation of people’s food choice behaviour in a realistic restaurant environment. Similarly, immersive contexts, such as a bar environment (12), are also providing new ways of collecting data. Traditionally, sensory research has focused on the in-mouth eating experience during a single bite or sip. Increasingly, the sensory experience during the entire product usage is studied, taking into account packaging, actual quantity consumed, meal context and multiple uses.

Better insights
The 9-point hedonic and purchase intent scales are used routinely in consumer testing of foods, but are not good at predicting repeat purchase. As we try to understand more about consumer motivations, new questions are being asked by investigators to get a better insight into the consumer’s relationship with food. Some of these questions are related to health, wellbeing and emotion, as discussed above. Others are to differentiate between liking and want, as want is believed to be more related to motivation to eat. Information gathered can be used to build improved models of food choice.

Sensory science has advanced significantly since its inception in the early half of the 20th century. It is continuously evolving to meet the needs of the 21st-century and adapting to give better, quicker predictions of product success. It will continue to have a vital role in enabling companies to maintain a healthy food supply and to gain competitive advantage by launching new, more successful products in a highly competitive and innovative food industry.

Dr Sarah E. Kemp is a consultant with extensive international experience in academia and industry, including Unilever, Cadbury Schweppes and Givaudan. She is a Chartered Scientist, Registered Sensory Scientist, IFST Fellow, Past Chair and examiner for the IFST SSG, member of the BSI and governor at East Kent College.
Tel: 01843579622. Email:

Professor Joanne Hort is SABMiller Chair of Sensory Science and Head of Brewing Science in the Division of Food Sciences at BABS, Sutton Bonington Campus, University of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington, Leicestershire, LE12 5RD, UK. She is a Chartered Scientist, Registered Sensory Scientist, IFST Fellow, Chair of E3S, Past Chair and examiner for the IFST
SSG. Tel: 0115 951 6222. Email:


  1. Kemp, S.E., Hollowood, T. & Hort, J. (2009), Sensory Evaluation. A Practical Handbook, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.
  2. Diener, E., Sapyta, J. J., & Suh, E. (1998). Subjective well being is essential to wellbeing. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 33–37.
  3. Boelsma, E., Brink, E. J., Stafleu, A., & Hendricks, H. J. J. (2010). Measures of postprandial wellness after single intake of two protein–carbohydrate meals. Appetite, 54, 456–464.
  4. Bouckley, B. (2013),’ ‘Gene genie’: Coke CTO predicts personalized beverages using genomics’. Available from: Coke-CTO-predicts-personalized-beverages-using-genomics [Accessed 30 November 2014]
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  10. Kemp, S.E. (2013). Consumers as part of food and beverage industry innovation. In: Open Innovation in the Food and Beverage Industry. Woodhead Publishing Ltd., Cambridge, England. Ch 7, 109-138.
  11. Hein, K. A., Hamid, N., Jaeger, S.R. & Delahunty, C.M. (2010), ‘Application of a written scenario to evoke a consumption context in a laboratory setting: Effects on hedonic ratings’, Food Quality and Preference, 21 (4), 410-16.
  12. Sester, C., Deroy, O., Sutan, A., Galia, F., Desmarchelier, J-F., Valentin, D. & Dacremont, D. (2013) ‘”Having a drink in a bar”: An immersive approach to explore the effects of context on drink choice’, Food Quality and Preference, 28 (1), 23-31.

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