Talk about taste
While we ordinary tasters can merely say what we think about food, sensory judges are able to find exact words for what they find. The words they use to describe taste are not always the same as what consumers want to hear.
Marit Rødbotten has worked with sensory science since 1975, when she heard that Matforsk (now Nofima Mat) was starting up a division in sensory science. "I snuck in the back door, determined to take part in this development," says Marit. She started as an employee in the canteen, and with her background as a teacher in home economics from Stabekk school, she was soon an important contributor to the establishment of the sensory science division and in hiring and training sensory panel participants. She has worked as a senior sensory scientist for many years and has also travelled widely to Norwegian businesses where she has offered consultancy services, held lectures and led courses. Since 2003 she has also taught consumer and sensory science at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). At the age of 50, she completed her master’s degree on the subject of sensory judging of rancid taste.
She’s currently working on her Dr. philos. in the importance of word choice in sensory judgement. Doctoral candidate Marit Rødbotten has worked with sensory sciences for more than 35 years already.
"I shall never tire of this subject matter. I am so inordinately impressed by the profession sensory judges perform. We call them human instruments – they measure the intensity of sensory stimuli in an utterly objective manner," says Marit Rødbotten.
Words and feelings
Vocabulary is an essential part of sensory science. Marit Rødbotten’s thesis focuses on the words that are used to describe the sensory properties of products (flavour, odour, appearance, texture and sound), and on how these words are used to identify product properties.
"When we describe sensory properties of game, we use expressions like stale and harsh. These expressions give negative associations to most people, but for us it’s all about breaking down the words into ever more precise descriptions. The expression ‘game taste’ gives most people positive associations, and is therefore used to market products. To a sensory scientist, ‘game taste’ consists of many subsidiary expressions such as stale, harsh, liver and sweet," explains Rødbotten.
Expanding the Norwegian food vocabulary
"My many years in sensory science have left me with a feeling that we need much closer cooperation between the marketing divisions of the food industry and researchers in sensory science. When we hand over the results from our sensory tests to the industry, we include definitions of the words we have used. However, I feel that food producers would profit even more by discussing expressions with the researchers following the results from sensory tests," says Rødbotten. "Expressions such as perfumed odour or perfumed flavour are used to describe some types of apples, and rancid flavour is a correct way to describe mature cured hams. These are examples of how the use of precise vocabulary gives a thorough understanding of product quality, even though these may not be words that consumers are aware of in their own description of the same products. Consumers will probably consider these product descriptions as negative," says Marit Rødbotten. "We need to become more aware of how we can use our senses, and this should start in our early childhood years."
To many people, it may come as a surprise that we don’t experience taste in the same way, but the truth is that the intensity of our experience of basic tastes is genetically determined. In order to become a sensory judge, you need to be a supertaster, and in order to find out whether you are a supertaster, you must be thoroughly tested.
"You and I will probably sense the taste of a half teaspoon of sugar dissolved in a glass of water. But in comparison, a sensory judge can sense a single grain of sugar dissolved in a glass of water. It’s hardly strange that I find this human superpower fascinating!" exclaims Marit Rødbotten.
Marit Rødbotten will have her doctoral disputation on Wednesday 3 June 2009. The title of her thesis is "Importance of verbalisation in sensory judgement".
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Facts about sensory science
Sensory science is the study of our senses. Sensory analysis involves describing a product’s appearance, odour, flavour, texture and sound. A trained panel will only give an objective judgement of the products, and never assess whether they like the products they are served or not. The analysis method is chosen based on what issues the client wishes to be studied. The sensory panel at Nofima Mat at Ås consists of 12 sensory judges.