Horizon Milling study: What drives consumer liking of whole wheat bread?

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

“Consumers are good at saying what they like, not why,” said Elizabeth Uriyo, vice president of R&D at Horizon Milling, during a press conference at IBIE 2013.
“Consumers are good at saying what they like, not why,” said Elizabeth Uriyo, vice president of R&D at Horizon Milling, during a press conference at IBIE 2013.

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Although consumers vary widely in their sensory preferences when it comes to whole wheat bread, certain characteristics in whole wheat flour—such as decreased bitterness and increased sweetness—improve liking among most consumers, according to multi-year research conducted by Horizon Milling. 

The study aims to help bakers producing whole wheat products better pinpoint the characteristics that maximize liking of whole wheat products among various consumer segments.

“There’s a lot of pressure coming from consumers to improve the nutritive value of food,”​ said Elizabeth Uriyo, vice president of R&D at Horizon Milling, during a press event announcing the study at IBIE 2013 in Las Vegas. “Whole wheat is a key part of that discussion.”

For the study, 1,400 consumers were surveyed about their attitudes about pre-sliced packaged bread. From that sample, 360 adults and 170 children (K-12) were selected to participate in a taste test of 25 different whole wheat breads and score them on a range of metrics, including overall liking, intent to purchase, texture and appearance.

In order to analyze the similarities between breads that were liked or disliked by various segments, a trained panel from North Carolina State University created five quantitative sensory attribute scales: taste, flavor, texture, appearance and aroma—to help Horizon Milling obtain insights into how various whole wheat flours contribute to whole wheat bread’s sensory characteristics. “Consumers are good at saying what they like, not why,”​ Uriyo said.

Consumers were segmented based on their demographics (age, income, etc.), behaviors (brand loyalty), and attitudes relating to bread.

The greatest divide in preferences occurred between adults and children, with characteristics that drove liking for adults often driving disliking for children. Adult consumer preferences regarding whole wheat bread also offered a few surprises. For example, counter to what the researchers expected, finer particle size didn’t correlate to higher liking scores.

“We learned that particle size doesn’t have an impact on the liking of finished breads,”​ Uriyo said, adding that “bitterness wasn’t quite as important as we thought either. Some very bitter breads had high liking scores.”  

Still, on the taste scale as a whole, when bitterness is reduced, liking is increased. When sweetness and umami notes increase, liking improves, too.

As a result of the study, Horizon developed an online market simulator tool that can be used to predict the impact certain changes to bread will have on liking (such as adding flakes to the topping), or the effect of certain attributes on what price consumers are willing to pay for bread.

The research could help bakers determine optimal combinations of whole wheat sensory characteristics to maximize liking among particular consumer segments, Uriyo added. 

Horizon Milling is a joint venture between CHS Inc. and Cargill Inc. 

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