Neil Mermelstein

Neil H. Mermelstein

I contacted some of the major providers of sensory evaluation services and education for their view of what the most recent major developments in sensory science related to foods and beverages have been and what major challenges lie ahead. Here is what these experts (in alphabetical order) said.

Gail Vance Civille
At Sensory Spectrum Inc., New Providence, N.J. (, President Gail Vance Civille ([email protected]) said that the most recent major developments in sensory evaluation/sensory science related to foods and beverages are the use of anthropological and ethnographic techniques by sensory professionals to uncover the effects of the culture and behavior of consumers in their real environment. It is interesting that market research departments in most companies are not fighting with R&D and Sensory to take this on. Sensory thus sits in a strategic position to inform R&D about both the product and consumer needs.Sensory panel members evaluate the flavor of chicken. The red lighting gives all samples the same color.

Both the classic methods (previously used and improved sensory methods) and creative methods (new ethnographically based qualitative research) are needed in combination to get the most out of any research and development effort.

As for major challenges ahead, it is often difficult for sensory professionals working within R&D to convince scientists to rely on a series of tests to draw conclusions and make decisions. The results of a few tests often can provide far greater insight than one simple test of preference or difference, and the costs are marginally different.

Danny Ennis
At the Institute for Perception, Richmond, Va. (, President Daniel M. Ennis ([email protected]) said that the most recent major developments are as follows.

1. The discovery that humans possess a transducer entity (such as a G-protein) in chemical sensing through the development of molecular mixture models of psychophysical data. This research provided a molecular explanation for the synergy of glucose/fructose mixtures, and these mixtures are frequently used in food and beverage applications as corn syrups.

2. Reliable methods that link expert and analytical data to consumer liking through the concept of ideal points. Using these methods, we can design optimum product portfolios to meet the needs of different segments. In every food and beverage company worldwide, managers want to know what products to produce, how to reposition products, what products to withdraw from the market, and where future opportunities lie. They also want to know how to design optimum portfolios or teams of products. These new methods provide guidance on these issues.

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3. Development and application of Thurstonian models. These are models for any type of categorical task (almost every method in sensory evaluation from triangle difference testing to ratings involve categorical responses) that connect the underlying sensory scale to a measured response (for example, correct response or rating result). Using these methods, we design more cost-efficient discrimination methods requiring fewer resources with greater confidence in the results. Thurstonian models provide a framework to link all of our categorical methods together and provide a scientific basis for decision making concerning methodology. Without this framework, there is no way to know if the duotrio method is more or less powerful than the 2-AFC method or how powerful new methods, such as the tetrads method, are relative to those two. This basis for thinking saves a lot of time and money and prevents companies from ending up in frustratingly annoying cycles of indecision.

4. Development of the statistics of replicated testing. Through them, we can improve the power of difference and preference testing by reusing subjects to increase sample size rather than having to recruit new ones.

5. Realization that panel training is a form of category learning. We can revolutionize panel training by understanding the science behind the training process. A revolution in thinking about panel training will emerge from this research. Right now, essentially a set of useful but ad hoc procedures based on heuristics are in use. This research will utterly alter the field of panel testing and put the area on a scientific footing with significant improvements in both the time it takes to train a panel and the retention of that learning by panelists.

Major challenges ahead are training and communication. The sensory field tends to be a bit slow in adopting scientific advances. This is due to two factors. One is that the practitioners in the field generally do not have a sophisticated understanding of modeling. This tends to be pushed into “the stats” realm without realizing that “the stats” are just an applied form of modeling that they need to know something about. This can be overcome by training.

The second is a need for more inexpensive and frequent opportunities to present new advances. ASTM is currently the most open forum for low-cost communication on focused topics and the new Society of Sensory Professionals may help to provide a viable option.

Howard Moskowitz
At Moskowitz Jacobs Inc., White Plains, N.Y. (, President Howard R. Moskowitz ([email protected]) said that there are two major developments.

The first development is the increasing appreciation of experimentation vs. descriptive analysis. In past years, a lot of emphasis was placed on descriptive analysis, that somehow people knew both what the product was and what it should be. The process of knowing wasn’t clear, but the process of training experts was. And so it was training, experts, descriptions, and that type of work, along with simple testing, that occupied the sensory world. This fuzziness in thinking has given way to more acceptance of experiments, of systematic variation, from which rules are obtained.

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The second development is the proliferation of university-trained professionals in the field who bring in new ideas and young enthusiasts, raring to go, who want to advance the field with new science. Typically, the practitioners know how to run tests but have relatively little theory and little formal cross-training in different areas, while the young bucks are filled with new ideas but have no practical experience in applying those ideas so that they make business and scientific sense. This new development in sensory is turning out to be a wonderful mix of practicability/business with new ideas and vision. This development is occurring in front of our eyes as sensory becomes more professionalized and more mainstream in academia.

The two go hand in hand. Experimentation is the tool, and it’s being welcomed by those who know what modeling is about. Experimentation provides a science, not just a collection of methods. But until now sensory professionals could not accept experimentation; their statistics were limited to inferential statistics, which were the meat-and-potatoes analysis of tests rather than scientific studies.

Experimentation is by far the most important development. It will force a new way of thinking in the mind of the sensory professionals. They will start to materially contribute to the bottom line, or they will stop being relevant to business.

The biggest challenge ahead is to break out of the mold of “us” (sensory professionals) vs “them” (the rest of the world). Sensory does have respect, but it has to start really delivering. It has to stop thinking of itself as a low-cost, in-house supplier in competition with the rest of the world for funds and respect. Sensory has to learn to play with other groups.

Harry Lawless
At Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (, Food Science Professor Harry T. Lawless ([email protected]) listed the following areas as the most recent major developments in sensory evaluation/sensory science related to foods and beverages: Discovery of the taste and smell receptors—the G-protein-coupled 7-transmembrane proteins (GCPRs)—and their structures.

The importance of the transient receptor potential (TRP) family of receptors and their importance in trigeminal chemical sensations.

Recognition of the importance of retronasal smell and its contribution to flavor.

Similarity testing and equivalence testing.

Better psychological and psychophysical models.

Understanding of cognitive and decision factors in sensory judgments.

Understanding of contextual effects on sensory judgments.

Understanding of human biases in sensory judgments.

Integration of standard sensory testing programs with more front-end research, qualitative methods, and consumer contact.

Of these, similarity and equivalence testing are probably the most important. It is hard in science to prove a negative and almost as hard to prove that two things are not sensorially different. Fortunately, the days are past when people would consider a nonsignificant statistical result as evidence for sensory equivalence. The next step was to consider the power of the test, i.e., the ability to minimize or avoid Type II error (missing a difference or effect). That philosophy seems to be waning as well. Now we have various forms of interval testing that can prove that products are similar enough to be considered functionally equivalent. This seems to be more in step with other branches of science.

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Next in importance are the fuzzy front-end and qualitative methods. These used to be the province of marketing researchers, but more sensory people are going over to the dark side. It makes sense that if you have a consumer-testing function for prototypes and finished products, you would also look at consumer research on the very front end of innovation, ideation, and creative advantages.

The major challenges that lie ahead are improved communication with marketing and better statistical training for sensory specialists.

Barbara Rainey
At Barbara A. Rainey Consulting, Supply, N.C. (, President Barbara A. Rainey ([email protected]) said that the most recent major developments are the following:

1. Front-end surveys/studies of consumer attitude, emotions, and expectations, combined with descriptive data to help design products that factor in these consumer emotions.

2. Internet surveys which reach a broader audience of potential users.

3. New applications of descriptive analysis panel data for consumer understanding and quality work.

To develop a product that meets a consumer’s needs or to improve the product quality, we need to thoroughly understand and be able to measure a product’s characteristics. These three developments are important because they help to better understand the whole sensory experience with a product. The most important of these developments are the new applications of descriptive analysis. We are continually finding new applications for descriptive analysis data and making modifications to the methods. Descriptive analysis has become an essential component in a sensory and consumer science program rather than a nice-to-have component.

Five major challenges lie ahead.

1. Increase use of the Internet as a resource. Reviews of products/restaurant menu items from actual customers on social media sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs) provide immediate feedback to consumers, and one bad (or good) review can reach millions. Consumers find these Internet sources believable even, for instance, if it is one customer’s experience or if the taste test is based on only 3–4 opinions.

2. Increase/improve the sensory methods we use to measure the quality of our products to ensure that the product characteristics remain as designed into the product—not just in the production stage but throughout the distribution process and usage by the consumer—doing this even as we reduce costs and quicken the development process. This requires support from the corporate level to ensure that we have the resources to monitor the product throughout the life cycle, that we conduct consumer studies to understand the tolerance limits of product characteristics (risk assessment), and that we then monitor these important characteristics not only during production but also in the product once it has reached the point of purchase by the consumer. We must measure and reduce the variability of our product and make it a consistent experience for the consumer. This necessitates pulling the product from the retail shelf or consumer point of purchase, not just from the production line or the pilot plant, so that we test the product (for packaging impact, distribution impact, storage impact) as the customer actually sees the product.

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3. Monitor and eliminate off-flavors, conduct improved shelf-life studies, and understand packaging/product interactions.

4. Conduct more instrumental/sensory/consumer testing in terms of packaging issues to be sure that the package is user-friendly, particularly in a product designed for children or older adults.

5. Improve sensory methodology to measure texture characteristics.

Howard Schutz
At the University of California, Davis (, Professor Emeritus of Consumer Science Howard G. Schutz ([email protected]) considered the following as the most important developments:

1. Emotion as one of the aspects of people’s responses to foods and beverages has become of general interest. Foods have emotional connotations.

2. Use of sophisticated statistical analyses of data has become very important in the ability to interpret complex data sets.

3. Use of front-end concept research has increased. The utilization of traditional market research techniques by sensory scientists has become more prevalent.

4. More-sophisticated qualitative methodology is being used more on the front end of projects.

These developments demonstrate the importance of sensory evaluation scientists in the organization’s ability to make more reliable and valid decisions in the product development and quality control processes.

As to which of these is the most important, it’s a combination of the front-end and market research techniques because they involve sensory people in new areas that they haven’t worked in at all. They have to become more knowledgeable and experienced and have the ability to work more closely with market research people on a team basis. They become more significant in the organization, making reliable and valid evaluations.

As for major challenges ahead, sensory evaluation people are in demand because of their value. But educational training for them is insufficient. There is growth in the number of sensory people but no commensurate growth in ability, education, and training. UC Davis Extension has been trying to overcome this by providing an Applied Sensory Science and Consumer Testing Online Certification Program. More than 250 people all over the world have graduated from the program, which is now in its eighth year.

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Herbert Stone & Becky Bleibaum
At Tragon Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif. (, Senior Advisor Herbert Stone ([email protected]) and Vice President Rebecca N. Bleibaum ([email protected]) identified the most recent major developments as follows:

1. Advanced data collection and sophisticated analysis tools. These tools, including the means for obtaining responses away from the laboratory environment and transmitted electronically, enable product managers and technologists to observe data as collected and to have summary results available as collected. Use of cloud computing represents another natural move for those professionals needing rapid response with advanced analysis for complex data sets.

2. Early-stage research methods used in the front end of innovation. These include observational techniques in the consumers’ environment, qualitative sensory immersion (QSI®) programs designed to discover consumer desires, frustrations, and challenges, and other bench-level techniques such as Napping®, in which products are grouped on a two-dimensional surface according to similarities and differences to produce a map with descriptive terms applied to each product within the map. These methods provide more thoughtful structure early in the process at the bench level and beyond. The primary risk is the exclusion of other, more extensive quantitative sensory testing.

3. Integration of sensory testing with imagery and packaging to understand consumers’ whole product experience to find the best fit based on the marketing strategy. Historically, most sensory testing has been done without a connection to the marketing strategy, leading to product failures caused not by product deficiencies but rather by failure to integrate the two early enough in the development process. Use of electronic data-collection systems can capture imagery information in the context of alternative purchasing options.

4. Web-based sensory education programs. Due to increasing demand, companies experience difficulty finding adequately trained sensory professionals who understand the science behind the methodologies. Short courses of 3–5 days each are insufficient to instill the scientific knowledge and procedures necessary to provide a career capability. As a result, sensory professionals come to IFT’s Sensory and Consumer Sciences Division or related associations to find answers to their problems and frustrations—a kind of free consulting service.

To help address the shortage of qualified professionals, the UC Davis Extension Web-based certificate program provides comprehensive university-level instruction, a scientific foundation that teaches statistics and experimental design, easy access for working professionals, strategic business applications, and global availability. Kansas State University also developed an online master’s degree in food science with an emphasis on sensory evaluation. Students must complete coursework in statistics, marketing research, and business management.

Web-based programs allow students flexibility, and programs that are directly linked with professional development will benefit the field of sensory science, employees, and employers.

As for major challenges ahead, first is the need to educate sensory scientists about the science involved and how it is applied rather than focusing on how to use a method. Most sensory professionals entering the field do not understand the strategic nature of the work they do, nor do they communicate that information in a manner that is understood within the business environment. There is a lack of scientific rigor, and when the sensory staff is challenged about the results, they cannot manage the information to advantage. Sensory information has tremendous strategic and business applications when communicated in a way that is understood.

Newest Sensory Facility opens in Illinois
Tragon Corp. opened its new Deerfield, Ill., facility on March 1, 2010. The million-dollar, state-of-the-art facility features 24 sensory testing booths with controlled lighting, temperature, and pressure and electronic reporting using proprietary direct-entry software. It can accommodate another 26 panelists using laptop computers. The facility also includes a 2,500-sq-ft test kitchen and rooms for conducting focus groups and quantitative descriptive analysis sessions, as well as other types of sensory tests.

The Deerfield facility was preceded by another multi-million-dollar facility that Tragon opened in October 2009 in Redwood, Calif. That facility features 48 testing booths and two QDA rooms. Both facilities also incorporate the use of Smart Board™ technology throughout. Smart Boards are state-of-the-art electronic white boards, allowing for better collaboration, accuracy, and efficiency. Clients can watch a QDA session from their desktop, data are captured and shared across a network, and information is available in real time.

by Neil H. Mermelstein, a Fellow of IFT, is Editor Emeritus of Food Technology
[email protected]


Forthcoming Sensory Evaluation Conferences and Short Courses

July 8–9, 2010 Cost Efficient Methods for Product Mapping Workshop Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell Cooperative Extension and Department of Food Science
July 16–17, 2010 Sensory Evaluation: Current Developments and Applications Short Course Chicago, Ill. Institute of Food Technologists
July 17–20, 2010 IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo Poster Presentations Chicago, Ill. IFT Sensory & Consumer Sciences Division
July 23, 2010 Creating Optimal Products & Portfolios Rotterdam, the Netherlands Institute for Perception
July 25-28, 2010 Sensometrics Meeting Rotterdam, the Netherlands Sensometrics Society
September 5–8, 2010 4th Eurosense: European Sensory and Consumer Research Conference: A Sense of Quality Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain University of Basque Country
September 14-19, 2010 20th ECRO Biennial Congress Avignon, France European Chemoreception Research Organization
September 20–23, 2010 Sensory Evaluation Short Course New Brunswick, N.J. Center for Professional Advancement
September 21–22, 2010 Sensory Evaluation Short Course New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers NJAES Office of Continuing Professional Education
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October 2010 Applied Sensory Science and Consumer Testing Certificate Program Davis, Calif. University of California Extension
October 21–22, 2010 International Seminar on Sensory Science & Technology and Application 20 Beijing, China China National Institute of Standardization, Zhejiang Gongshang University, Centre Européen des Sciences du Goût (CESG), and École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Industries Textiles (ENSAIT)
October 25-27, 2010 ASTM Committee E18 Meeting Napa, Calif. ASTM Committee E18 on Sensory Evaluation Meeting
October 27–29, 2010 Transforming Science into Strategy Short Course Napa, Calif. Society of Sensory Professionals
November 8–12, 2010 Drivers of Liking®, Segmentation and Portfolio Optimization Short Course White Sulphur Springs, W.V. Institute for Perception
November 16–20, 2010 Descriptive Panel Leadership Short Course Providence, N.J. Sensory Spectrum
February 7–9, 2011 Introduction to Sensory Evaluation Short Course Phoenix, Ariz. Barbara Rainey Consulting
February 9–11, 2011 Introduction to Descriptive Analysis Short Course Phoenix, Ariz. Barbara Rainey Consulting
March 28–April 1, 2011 Sensory Product and Concept Testing: Analyses, Applications and Computer Workshop Williamsburg, Va. Institute for Perception
April 11–14, 2011 ASTM Committee E18 Meeting Anaheim, Calif. ASTM Committee E18 on Sensory Evaluation Meeting
May 16–18, 2011 Advanced Descriptive Analysis Short Course Phoenix, Ariz. Barbara Rainey Consulting
July 10–14, 2011 9th Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium Bangkok, Thailand


About the Author

IFT Fellow
Editor Emeritus of Food Technology
[email protected]
Neil Mermelstein