A pioneer in meals research

Forget everything you've heard about gourmet food and new kitchen trends. Most people prefer to eat their dinner as a stew - no matter how it's served.

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Margrethe Hersleth

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Taste is a science, and the most incredible things can be measured. Morten Thyregod Paulsen measures how the taste of salmon changes in combination with sauces. This can determine how meals are composed in the future.

We all want stew
The food industry sees an increasing need for improved sensory qualities in ready to eat meals. This requires research in the sensory perception of meals, and knowledge on how tastes interact.

"Sensory science is an important tool in product development. I wanted to combine knowledge of raw materials, sensory science and consumer perception," says Thyregod Paulsen, who is currently studying for his MA degree.

One of the first things Thyregod Paulsen did for his MA thesis at Nofima Mat was to carry out an observation study with 12 Nofima employees. They were served a meal with salmon with a sauce, potatoes and broccoli. This way of eating fish – accompanied by a thick, creamy sauce – is typical of the Nordic countries.

The meal was filmed and everyone was interviewed. Where did they place the sauce? How much sauce did they help themselves to? Which elements of the meal were eaten together?
"As expected, there was a high prevalence of stew. Only one person, who had food allergies, and one other, with a non-Norwegian cultural background, ate the fish alone. The others mixed everything on their plate well," says Thyregod Paulsen.

Specially designed sauce
The purpose of the observation study was to establish which taste method to use in his further work. The method is currently being tested on Nofima Mat’s sensory panel. A culinary sauce with pure basic tastes (sour, salty, bitter, sweet and umami) has been developed specially for this purpose by student cooks at Grythyttan in Sweden. Members of the test panel have ingested 34 salmon meals in all – each! – and have tested 17 different variations in taste. They have judged the salmon in itself, the sauce and the combination of the two. The question they have attempted to answer is: "How does the taste profile of the salmon change when eaten together with sauce?"

"We have seen that some of the properties of the salmon are subdued, such as the taste of fish oil and bitterness, or enhanced, such as the umami and saltiness tastes," says Morten Thyregod Paulsen. This knowledge may for instance be useful when designing meals particularly suited for the elderly and children.

Basic research
Traditionally, sensory research tests each single component of the food. However, this is quite unnatural in comparison to a real meal, where a person eats many components at the same time. Some of the point of meals research is to learn about sensory interplay.

"Connecting knowledge from the students at Grythyttan and from the sensory panel has been very interesting. A new view of the meal in itself is important in order to develop ready to eat meals with a high sensory quality," says Morten Thyregod Paulsen.

A lot of basic research will have to be carried out first, however.

"Very little research has been carried out for instance on the interplay between sensory properties in different foods, both in Norway and worldwide. It’s not just about taste. Visual presentation, texture and context (the setting that the food is eaten in) are decisive factors for how we experience a meal. We’re also working on developing the analytical method itself, in order to ensure that it is sufficiently robust," explains Thyregod Paulsen. It will need to be tested on other types of food than salmon and sauce.

Thyregod Paulsen will hand in his MA thesis at UMB (the Norwegian University of Life Sciences) in May, and hopes to continue meals research in a doctoral project this fall.

Consumer and sensory sciences  

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