One of the biggest challenges in creating a new food product is predicting how it will be accepted by consumers. There are a number of factors that determine consumer acceptance including price, convenience, and packaging but one key factor that deserves significant evaluation is the sensory experience that consumers have with the food.
Sensory testing is a method of evaluating food products in terms of the human senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. While taste appears to be a significant factor it is not the only consideration. Foods that may taste great lose appeal if the appearance is not pleasing. Visual interest is key in consumer acceptance. The texture of a food also plays into how it is perceived. How foods feel to the touch is especially important if eaten out of hand. Foods that leave hands greasy or sticky are less pleasing to eat. Sensory testing is a way to dissect and evaluate all of the factors that can contribute to food product success or failure.
Sensory testing utilizes panels of individuals who are selected to sample foods under controlled conditions. There are specific methods used in offering food samples to testers to ensure an unbiased evaluation and then the results are statistically analyzed.
Sensory testing is often used to determine consumer acceptability of a food product. Testers taste samples and then rate the products. The testing may be in the form of comparative analysis where testers are asked which sample they prefer. Another type of testing is where they are given a scale on which to rate each sample. Panels should consist of at least 50 people and much larger numbers are preferred. Panelists should also be people who “like” the type of food being tested. For example, someone who does not like popcorn would not be a good choice to evaluate a caramel corn product.
The Food Sensory Laboratory at Michigan State University under the direction of Dr. Janice Harte provides a variety of sensory testing services to the food industry. Services include product sensory evaluation, sensory panel training, sample preparation and storage, food product development, nutrient analysis and nutritional labeling.
The MSU Product Center provides assistance to entrepreneurs in developing food products. Innovation counselors from across the state are available to work with entrepreneurs in concept development, business planning and marketing of new food products. The Product Center also connects entrepreneurs to services available through MSU like sensory testing as well as to resources available through external collaborators to assist in launching new products and businesses.
Source: Brenda J. Reau, Michigan State University Extension, MSU Product Center