Speaking at the SIFBI-ILSI Symposium in Singapore on June 9, Dr Conor Delahunty said: “Food has no nutritional value until it is chosen, accepted and consumed regularly as part of a diet. The sensory properties of foods, such as taste and smell, are the main factors for consumers’ choice and consumption.”
In addition, the vice president of Symrise’s Global Sensory & Consumer Insights, Taste, Nutrition & Health division told NutraIngredients-Asia that regardless of a product’s claims, “it is not considered successful unless the consumers choose to eat it”.
“Health and taste are the top priorities for product formulation and fortification. The objective may be to remove excessive sugar, sodium or fat; to use ingredients with a higher nutritional value; or to fortify with health benefits.
“No matter which it is, taste is key for sustained and repeated choice. Sensory motivation factors such as flavour, intensity, mouthfeel, and after-taste drive consumer preferences. Hence, taste cannot be sacrificed to bring nutrition effects.”
Despite the importance of taste, it remains a challenge for many food companies.
“Healthier products often come at the cost of imbalanced taste, such as bitter flavour, sandy texture, missing creaminess, and lingering after-taste. Therefore, the product development process should include understanding of market and consumer needs, product design, sensory profiling, consumer testing, and predictive modelling.”
According to Dr Delahunty, bigger companies stand to gain from their breadth of know-how — compared to start-ups with less capacity — in an industry where “everyone is trying to make their products well-liked”.
“The big brands will do consumer testing, instead of bringing a product to market directly. For example, they might do a taste test of the prototype versus competitor products with 200 consumers at a central location, or they might conduct home-user tests. If the response is not good, they will make changes to the taste, functionality etc. accordingly.”
To shorten product development cycles, some companies are adopting a “launch and learn” approach these days.
This means that they would roll out the new product on a small scale to evaluate the sales, obtain feedback, and monitor if people are talking about it online.
“The product could be something that is outside of their normal line-up, or whose market demand the company wants to study. Ultimately, it must do well in comparison with other existing products in the market.”
Founded in Germany and with regional headquarters in the US, France, Brazil, and Singapore, Symrise is a supplier of fragrances, flavourings, cosmetic raw materials, and functional ingredients that enhance the sensory properties and nutrition of food products.
It works with major corporations including Unilever, Nestle, PepsiCo, and Kraft Heinz.
When it comes to taste, Dr Delahunty said that many ingredient companies are facing similar problems.
“You can have something that’s highly functional, but would never be consumed. You’d have to continue improving and ensure that it’s palatable. If consumers are very familiar with a product and it tastes different after you fortify it, then there’s going to be a problem.
“Besides having ingredients that are good for health, Symrise is also traditionally a flavour house. If a functional ingredient tastes bitter, we are able to mask it with a flavouring. If it has a poor mouthfeel, we can add flavourings or other ingredients to optimise the texture. We have the capabilities to make a product attractive for the target demographic.”
Dr Delahunty cited the plant protein space as a sector where a lot of such work is taking place.
“How the protein is processed will determine how well it tastes. So, the learning that’s happening throughout the plant protein industry is the selection of varietals, processing in ways that get rid of off-flavours, and collaboration with flavour houses,” he explained.
Role of sensory science
Furthermore, food consumption can be affected by factors such as physical environment, consumers’ innate likes and dislikes, and context (such as memories associated with a certain food).
For the elderly, a declining sense of smell or taste may also impact their ability or desire to eat a variety of foods, resulting in an unbalanced diet.
In such cases, sensory science can be leveraged to increase food enjoyment and intake.
“Sensory nutrition science aims to highlight the functional role of sensory properties in reshaping diets and moderating food intake. It provides the scientific approach and methodologies to measure and interpret consumer perception and behaviour.
“At the same time, it is applied to guide the development of new products, raising the likelihood of commercial success,” Dr Delahunty reiterated.