A guide to excellence in professional tasting

 

Professional taster evaluating soft drink sample

Notwithstanding the sophistication of modern production, distribution and retail operations, assessment of product flavour quality, both in-process and in final package, remains as important today as it has ever been. 

 

Glasses of wine for evaluation by professional wine tasters

 

Analysis of the flavour of foods and beverages be used to find out how different people react to sets of products (to find out who likes what). It can also be used to find out about products by using groups of people as a type of measuring instrument (to ‘measure’ the flavour of different products).

It is measurement of product flavour that is most commonly practiced in production sites making soft drinks, beer, cider etc. Analysis of how different people react to different products is the domain of consumer research, which is usually carried out in the marketplace. In both cases testing is carried out 'blind' without the assessirs having any knowledge of the identity of the samples they are being asked to evaluate. Such blnd taste tests are the cornerstone of sensory analysis.

Two approaches can be applied to manage quality in food and beverage production operations. Systems based on quality control (QC) place an emphasis on testing the final product. Batches of product that fail to meet pre-determined quality standards are rejected. The causes of failure are investigated retrospectively. Those based on quality assurance (QA) emphasize testing of raw materials and in-process samples. They place importance on prevention of problems, rather than on their detection.

Most production plants use a mix of quality control and quality assurance, often integrated into wider quality management systems including the ISO 9000 series, HACCP, Total Quality Management and Six Sigma. Measurement of product parameters may fall within the scope of ISO 17025 and other certification systems for assuring the validity of measurements.

Of particular importance is the establishment and communication throughout the company of a context for such activities. Everyone involved in the production and sale of the company’s products must know just how important the flavour of is to their acceptance by consumers. Staff must see the flavour of the products they make and sell as paramount, not as an optional extra. The responsibility for establishing such a context rests clearly with the company’s senior managers.

 

Objectives of sensory tests in food and beverage production

A wide variety of test methods is available to the sensory professional. Many of these have a strong basis in the behavioural sciences, and are backed by rigorous statistics. However, to benefit from this sound footing, it is important that recommended procedures are slavishly adhered to.

In selecting the right test method the following factors should be considered:

  • What are the objectives of the work?
  • What problem has to be solved?
  • What is the degree of risk that you are willing to accept that the results you get might be wrong?
  • How do you intend to interpret the results? This will determine how you should carry out the test.
  • Are the assessor forms you intend to use clear and unambiguous? Do they comply with recommended formats?
  • Are all the materials that you will use for the test (eg glassware) clean and odour free?
  • Have potential sources of sensory bias been eliminated as far as possible?
  • Have serving temperatures been placed under tight control?
  • Are your tasters trained and checked? Are they good enough?

 

Analysis and reporting of sensory data

Well-planned sensory tests need well-planned analyses to extract information from the data. From this information, it is possible to derive insight into the company’s products and processes.

Basic statistical testing is needed for most tests. For example, difference tests such as the triangular taste test use tests of statistical significance. These tell us whether the hypothesis we adopted prior to carrying out the test can be confirmed or rejected.

Cups of tea intended for evaluation by professional tea tasters

The two possible hypotheses in a triangular test are:

  • The two batches of product are identical, or
  • The two batches of product are different.

 

It also allows us to estimate the probability that we may be wrong in drawing such a conclusion.

In the area of descriptive sensory analysis the statistical methods employed are more demanding. For example, in the case of Quantitative Descriptive Analysis®, multi-dimensional statistical analysis methods such as Principal Component Analysis are employed. Further levels of information can often be accessed using more powerful statistical techniques such as Generalized Procrustes Analysis.

All such techniques have two purposes:

  • They tell us whether the data we have acquired are valid;
  • They help us derive information from the data that might not be easily accessible via a more cursory inspection.

 

After the analysis it is vital that we communicate the information obtained to those on whom we depend to take action. It is pointless to blind potential users of sensory information with science. Reports must be accurate, concise and above all intelligible. Table 1 shows some of the many ways in which the results of sensory tests can be used to drive improvements in business performance in production plants.

 

Table 1: Sensory tests and how they can help food and beverage producers

Type of test

Examples

Business need addressed

Difference tests

Triangular taste test

Duo-trio test

The need to know if the products produced by two or more production units are consistent.

The need to know if production changes impact on flavour.

The need to know if products manufactured in one plant taste the same as those produced in another.

Descriptive tests

Flavour Profile® Method

Quantitative Descriptive Analysis®

Trueness to type method

Free-choice profiling

The need to understand what makes your product different from the others.

The need to be able to ‘measure’ those distinctive differences.

The need to accurately diagnose problems so that they can be solved quickly.

Preference tests

Paired comparison test

A-not-A test

The need to understand which products consumers like.

 

Scaling tests

Ranking test

Magnitude estimation tests

The need to understand what makes your product different from the others.

The need to be able to ‘measure’ those distinctive differences.

Drinkability tests

Volumetric consumption test

The need to understand the relationships between our production process and drinkablity.

Hybrid test methodologies

Preference mapping

The need to understand which products consumers like.

The need to divide consumers into groups, based on their preference.

The need to relate the individual flavours in the product to preference.

 

Key focus areas for professional tasting in food and beverage operations

Taste panel involved in a discussion

In our experience the recipe for success includes:

  • Commitment from senior management to the Sensory Quality Management programme
  • Recruitment and development of staff to ensure that the sensory function is professionally managed
  • Recruitment and development of a flavour panel leader
  • Training of the flavour panel
  • Validation of the flavour panel performance
  • Establishment of an on-going system of improvement and validation
  • Establishment of a management reporting system that provides maximum leverage to the business

 

Producers that derive the most value from sensory testing create maximum interaction between production and marketing functions. There is no better tool to do this than the deployment of Preference Mapping as a means of understanding consumer reactions to products.

 

Critical evaluation of the Sensory Quality Management function in food and beverage operations

Icons used to represent common beverage flavours

Regular auditing can help make sure that your company is making the best use of the opportunities and sensory evaluation resources available to it. In our experience we find an analysis of 12 key activities to be helpful. These are shown in table 1 below. Identification of gaps in the company’s competencies in each of these areas can allow development of a structured path to improvement.

Cara Technology has a lot of expertise in this area, having helped many food and beverage companies to implement and improve their sensory quality management systems. If you need help you please let us know.

 

Table 2: Key focus areas for auditing of the Sensory Quality Management function

Focus area

Assessment criteria

Organization and staffing

The company should have the right level of resource available within the sensory function, and these should be organized in the most efficient way.

Brand specifications

There should be a clear view of what sort of products the company is trying to make, and Brand Flavour Fingerprints or their equivalent should be available for all brands.

Competitive position

The company should have a clear view on its competitive position from the perspective of product flavour and consumer behaviour. The flavour of competitors’ products should be as well understood as their own.

Inter-plant matching

If a brand is produced in more than one production plant there should be systems in place to assure plant-to-plant consistency and to provide an objective measure of the size and nature of any differences.

Link to action

All sensory reports should lead to clear actions, with a direct link between the flavour issue highlighted and the person responsible for bringing about improvements.

Sensory testing facilities

The company should have access to sensory testing facilities appropriate to its needs and objectives.

Product release activities

No product should leave the production site unless it has been tasted by a group of expert tasters.

Taster competence

The level of taster competence aimed for should be clearly defined and documented, and appropriate to the company’s needs and objectives.

Taster validation

The company’s tasters should meet or exceed the level of competency aspired to. A robust system should be in place to allow valid measurements to be made, ideally calibrated against international benchmarks.

Training and development

A system of training and development should be in place to cover sensory professionals, tasters, and the users of information derived from sensory tests.

Reward and recognition

A system of reward and recognition should be in place to assure taster motivation, performance and attendance.

Health, safety and liability.

A rigorous assessment of the risks and liabilities associated with running a sensory operation related to alcoholic beverages should be carried out and appropriate protective actions implemented.

 

A sensory action plan to help you get the most out of your tasting activities.

Sensory analysis requires care in planning and diligence in execution. In our experience there are eight steps to success in sensory panel management:

  • Set objectives. Decide on the objectives of your sensory analysis programme and get the commitment of your colleagues.
  • Set specifications. Draw up sensory specification for all of your products, defining both positive and negative flavour notes, together with their target intensities.
  • Identify potential. Select people with great potential as your tasters and panel leaders - enthusiastic, committed, and keen to be involved.
  • Select for aptitude. Screen those people you have selected using objective sensory tests to find those with the greatest aptitude for tasting.
  • Train systematically. Train your selected, screened tasters to recognize and scale sufficient flavour attributes to allow them to consistently discriminate among your own products, and between your own products and those of your competors.
  • Validate performance. Measure the performance of your tasters and benchmark them to comparable panels in blind taste tests.
  • Automate your tasting. Deploy your people in routine tasting with the maximum degree of automation - eliminate wasted effort whereever you can.
  • Encourage a bias for action. Maximize the actionability of your sensory reports to assure quality, improve your products and solve production problems faster.