Old taste buds do not rust

The human sense of taste can be trained to do the most incredible things. And once they first have learned something, they never forget it. In fact, a new doctoral dissertation shows that retired taste judges retain the ability to characterise tastes even after over 20 years without any practice.

Research Fellow Janna Bitnes was born in 1976. Matforsk started its sensorics laboratory that same year. Bitnes has gone through and systematised the data all the way from the start of the laboratory – and tested the taste judges who have retired.

The human instrument

"I was interested in learning more about taste and the training of taste, and seeing how it changes," says the newly minted Ph.D. She believes that the research work strengthens sensorics (see the explanation below of the word) as science. "I have gained more respect for the human instrument. People are well-suited to be saying something about food, and to being an instrument for food. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it is true," says Janna Bitnes. "Because the sense of taste is surprisingly stable. The use of taste judges is a robust methodology, and the ability to identify tastes is not related to age or any absence of training."

21 years with no training

Even after many years, the expertise of taste judges has not deteriorated. The eight retired taste judges who were included in the study had between five and 23 years of experience, and had retired as active taste judges from 3 to 21 years ago. Janna Bitnes has investigated their perceptions of specific tastes in relation to age and life experiences, as well as in relation to the complexity of the food product.

The abilities were dependant upon individual differences, characteristics, products and the method used. The retirees were also better at recognising fundamental tastes than at judging specific products. "This opens up the possibility of being able to procure sensorics judges at a random point in time without any special training plan, while at the same time reminding us that the sensorics abilities may change," she says.

What does the industry need?

Expertise gained from familiarity with a specific product has a greater significance to sensorics performances than does expertise involving general knowledge. This is significant for food product companies that have a limited number of products. It would be most appropriate for them to have a sensorics panel that is specifically trained in certain characteristics than to have judges who adapt easily to new products and new characteristics. "The industry must consider what they will be using their panel for. In connection with product development and new products, it could of course be nice for the panel to be trained in things other than the company’s own, limited product line," says Bitnes. She has gained access to the sensorics panels of four large industry participants in Norway. She has compared the tests they carry out with tests by Matforsk’s sensorics judges. "Comparisons showed that the industrial panel was better able to differentiate between samples in "their" product categories, whereas the Matforsk judges were the best on the basis of all the categories as a whole."

New job at Nortura

"How perception of certain tastes and flavours is affected by ageing, learning, and complexity in food systems" is the title of Janna Bitnes’ doctoral dissertation. Its defence took place at the University of Copenhagen on 7 December last year. Janna started as the head of sensorics for Nortura in January 2008.

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