An October 2011 study by the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization based in Washington DC, found that companies with foods considered to be “Better-For-You” such as low-fat or reduced sugar content as well as those selling products with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, experienced a 40 percent increase in sales. At the same time, the rates of adult and childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other weight-related illnesses are soaring.
At the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, located just north of Charlotte, NC, scientists from eight universities as well as industry and government institutions are looking for the answer to this paradox by researching the bioactive compounds that make food, especially fruits and vegetables, healthy. They are finding out how to enhance the nutrients with the greatest benefit to human health to produce varieties of even healthier fruits and vegetables. Post-harvest physiologists on campus are finding new ways to keep healthy foods fresher and contaminant free from the field to the fork.
NCRC partner Sensory Spectrum adds an additional scientific approach- one that is all about translating sensory data into products acceptable to consumers.
From the consumer point of view, deciphering health benefits amidst a sea of brands, colors, styles, types, flavors, health claims and price points is difficult. At least that’s what a consumer panel conducted at Sensory Spectrum’s North Carolina Discovery Center concluded when evaluating yogurt as a healthy snack.
“Our Spectrum Community Narrative panel (SCAN) confirmed that people are less familiar with yogurt than we as a society believe,” said Judy Heylmun, Sensory Spectrum’s vice president of business development and director of the North Carolina Discovery Center. “It also demonstrates that people are aware of yogurt but have little knowledge of Greek yogurt. “
The Spectrum Community Narrative panel (SCAN) is a specially trained group that, Heylmun explained, “speaks articulately about products.” They don’t rate product attributes as do Sensory Spectrum’s other panels but instead respond to products in analytical, consumer language that gauges product knowledge and distinguishes consumer preferences.
Over the course of a two-and-half-hour session, SCAN panelists, who range from stay-at-home mothers to retirees, discussed numerous facets of yogurt: what they like and dislike, the qualities they expect to find in yogurt and how they use yogurt. They addressed specific qualities and benefits of Greek yogurt in comparison to other types of yogurt. They tasted samples of yogurt, regular and Greek, discussing appearance, flavor, taste, texture and packaging.
“The value of all of this,” Heylmun said, “is that a client can figure out how to distinguish their products, and what they need to do to market them. They can also see that consumer knowledge and language around yogurt is limited. So how do they communicate that it tastes good? The other big thing is all about polarity- fat, sugar and protein. How do you communicate the value of each and how do you let them (consumers) know what to read on the label?”
In business for 25 years, Sensory Spectrum has proven the necessity of testing the sensory-value of products in consumer terms. They’ve tested everything from “food to furniture” including beverages, appliances and personal and home care products. “Open your pantry or your cabinets anything in there we can test,” said Heylmun.
Headquartered in New Providence, New Jersey, Spectrum’s 14,000 square-foot North Carolina Discovery Center opened in 2009 and employs eleven people from administrators to sensory scientists. The center houses a database of over 10,000 people available to be trained to work on panels that scale or rate specific product attributes according to Spectrum Descriptive Analysis™, a groundbreaking system of sensory analysis developed by Sensory Spectrum President and Founder Gail Vance Civille. Spectrum Descriptive Analysis™ scientifically rates the flavor, texture, fragrance, skinfeel and fabricfeel of products.
Translating the Senses
Sensory Spectrum’s presence on the NCRC is an opportunity for the campus’ university, business and government partners to introduce sensory analysis earlier in their research. An advantage experienced by James L. Oblinger, president of the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI), the NCRC flagship institute that serves scientists on and off the NCRC through its six laboratories, scientific equipment and customer-focused research services. Oblinger was previously with the North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) located at the NCRC where he was a co-investigator on the North Carolina Strawberry Project. Sensory Spectrum conducted sensory analysis on 16 strawberry breeding lines and cultivars by looking at and scoring traits such as appearance, shape, color, flesh texture, firmness and flavor using panels of consumers, chefs and farmers.
“We enlisted Sensory Spectrum (because of) their core expertise in sensory analysis,” Oblinger said, “which goes to the enth detail of color and flavor and texture and aroma, all of the sensory dimensions. We also accessed them because they have built through the years an inventory of testers. Whatever the food product is potato chips, strawberries, fresh fruits and vegetables, processed foods, hairspray, skin cream or mattresses, they do it with an accuracy and precision that makes them unique.”
The feedback from the panels expressed preferences about strawberries at “levels much more precise, accurate and descriptive” that Jeremy Pattison, PhD, strawberry breeder and an assistant professor in the NCSU department of horticultural science at PHHI, can use to breed a better North Carolina strawberry, increase the strawberry growing season and to grow strawberries in more regions of North Carolina.
“He now has additional direction and reinforcement of some of the varieties that he has developed over time in comparison to the ones that are commercially grown now. He has the sensory data to know which varieties he ought to be leading with,” Oblinger said.
From strawberry fields to laboratories, Oblinger sees that NCRC scientists have the advantage with Sensory Spectrum on campus of incorporating consumer input earlier in their research to narrow its focus and guide its development. The anticipated result is an increased likelihood of consumer acceptance and a shorter time from the laboratory bench to the grocery store shelf.
“We’ve got a lot of sophisticated instrumentation here,” Oblinger said. “So what do all of those data points mean as it relates to human beings and their preferences? How do you take the analytical side of things and the pure instrumentation and relate that to flavor intensity, for example. Is it certain compounds within fruits or vegetables? We know it is. Have we identified all of those compounds? No, we haven’t. Consumer panelists are going to help identify those. That’s where Sensory Spectrum is the translator.”