Few words to describe ham
Norwegians use far fewer words than the Italians and Spanish when describing ham; but then again, we also eat far less ham than they do.
Figures from 2009 show that the average Norwegian consumer ate 400 grams of ham a year, while the Spanish ate 3.3 kilos and the Italians topped the list with an average consumption of 4.4 kilos.
“The main reason why there are so many more descriptive expressions about ham in Italian and Spanish is doubtless that they eat far more ham there. But it also has something to do with the way we eat. The Italians and Spanish are better at communicating when it comes to food. Their meals take longer, and when they buy ham in a shop they have it sliced for them by someone they can talk to,” says Margrethe Hersleth, Senior Research Scientist at the food research institute Nofima.
Italians are the most precise and detailed
Together with research colleagues at the University of Florence and the IRTA research institute in Spain, Margrethe Hersleth has been carrying out a study involving a total of 90 consumers in Norway, Spain and Italy. The participants (30 each from Italy, Norway and Spain) tasted six different hams and were asked to describe their sensory properties, that is to say their appearance, smell, flavour and texture.
On average, the Spanish and Italians used ten words to describe their perceptions of the different hams, while the Norwegians only used six. The words used by the Norwegians also differed a good deal.
“Norwegians use words like sweet and mature. But we don’t manage to distinguish hams that are sweet or mature from the other hams. We have heard these words, but we have no training in how to use them,” Hersleth points out.
Only three words were used consistently by the Norwegians. The Spanish managed to use 14 words consistently, while the Italians were agreed on no fewer than 17 properties.
“The Norwegian participants managed to give a correct description of a ham in terms of redness, maturity and saltiness. The Italians are far more precise and detailed. They can describe a ham, for example, as sweet, salty, rancid, mature, melting, marbled and tender,” says Hersleth.
Using sensory panels
“As a sensory researcher, I could easily get depressed by results like these. But it is certainly possible to use these results in a positive way. Norwegian ham producers could teach us consumers to put words to the ham’s sensory properties,” says Hersleth.
A trained sensory panel or sensory experts can be used to produce a list of properties that would be suitable for describing and promoting distinctive products. Such properties, perhaps combined with a little history of the ham, could help to increase consumers’ awareness of and interest in the product.
Nofima’s trained sensory panel was used for this research project. They identified a total of 25 properties that describe the hams. This information is a vital basis for communicating the special qualities of the different hams.
“Because it is important to explain to customers what sensory experiences they can expect. Here, we could learn something from the wine trade. They try to teach us to taste by putting words to wine,” concludes Hersleth.
This research has been financed by the Foundation for Research Levy on Agricultural Products.