RCA Pacific Southwest + SCIFT Regional Event Summary

By: Philip Saneski

This year the annual RCA Pacific Southwest + SCIFTs (So. Cal. IFT) combined meeting was hosted at Village Green Foods, and luckily a (very) rare rainy day in sunny southern California didn’t prevent two hours of fun networking followed by an informative presentation on the evolution of sensory evaluation by Rossella Mazzucchelli, President and Founder of SENSORY WORKS, Inc., who I must acknowledge a special thank you to for her sensory evaluation industry insight. Special thanks also goes out to Jenny Rosoff, who once again cleared out the production area for us to socialize, event organizer Jeff Crace, whose company Garlic King sponsored the event alongside Village Green Foods, Pop Chips, Del Real Foods, Belgioioso Cheeses, Mago Hot Sauce, The Fig Board, and all the student volunteers from the Orange Coast College Culinology® and Food Science programs working the event. Probably the most interesting bite of food that night was the Pop Chip French Onion Cheesecake, which I found so well balanced I regret not asking if they had blast chiller for me to take home any extra portions. Seriously though, I was glad I brought business cards, and was even more surprised companies actually wanted my contact information. They are interested in up-and-coming Culinologists® and somehow believed I am one of them!  

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As an experienced sensory professional with over 15 years of valuable consumer insight working for leading companies including PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods and Symrise Inc., Rossella Mazzucchelli’s presentation on the evolution of sensory evaluation educated more than 150 food R&D professionals on the drastic changes that occurred over the past 20 years. While humans have used their senses to evaluate foods for thousands of years, in the last two decades we have witnessed the coffee market expand from a household chore to an over $32 billion industry this year. Bagged salad bought in the grocery isle, similarly, is predicted to be worth $7 billion by 2018.

Escalating financial market gains, fundamental human physiological differences and the development of contemporary sensory evaluation techniques have shifted reliance on the “Golden Tongue” of a few experts to consumer-centric approaches. Sensory evaluators have been moving away from standards and food grades to project product success. As Mazzucchelli experienced first-hand, R&D departments started to lead, hire, and fund their own research to complement the initial work conducted by marketing. Compared to 20 years ago, sensory divisions are much bigger, have more power, and process significantly more consumer-driven studies. She further referenced examples of incorporating consumer research earlier in the process via use of ethnography, focus groups, flavor sorts, and concept testing:

“It used to be that Sensory and Market Research were totally disconnected from one another. When I worked at Pepsi 20 years ago, the marketing and market researchers were not only in a different building but in a different city. And that was before WebEx and cell phones. So the gap between Sensory and Market Research was huge. The problem with that was that the transfer of the ‘baton’ wasn’t always smooth, and projects fell through the cracks. In addition, there was no overlap whatsoever in methodologies… so that when a product tested well in sensory it didn’t necessarily test well in a market research study.

It is helpful for PD, Sensory, Marketing and Market Research to collaborate from the beginning, because that way Sensory understand what hurdles the product will face once it’s transitioned over to Market Research. There are also certain type of questions that can be effectively be used by both sides.”

While reliance on a single method in any discipline will create more problems than it will ever solve, Mazzucchelli asserted sensory evaluators are relying on Design of Experiments (DOE) more than ever before. Intended for the researcher and not the customer, DOE is a software that builds complex models based on statistical theory that can be used as an efficient tool to reduce development time and provide a better result than traditional product development practices. Examples of questions answered by DOE might be identifying ideal levels of sweetness and acidity, under what conditions (temperature, pH) can we store certain ingredients, or how to optimize seasoning composition for overall flavor intensity and umami with cost and clean label restrictions—something I learned from attending the “Application of DOE to Sodium Reduction” breakout session at the 2015 RCA Conference. New Orleans was the first place I heard of the DOE software, and fortunately the RCA brought Griffith Laboratories experts Dennis Girik CRC® and Mike Bunczek, who literally wrote the DOE textbook. Together they provided two Swedish meatball samples, each with the same level of salt. The meatball that applied DOE was much more flavorful (right side, shinier), with a significantly fattier mouthfeel and perhaps more bruniose onions. Chefs Girik and Bunczek predict DOE sodium reduction will double by 2018. Leaders in sensory evaluation, like Mazzucchelli, already rely heavily on the software. Clearly up-and-coming Culinologists® who are familiar with DOE have an advantage when applying for work.

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Mazzucchelli’s presentation concluded with her saying some of the most enjoyable projects she’s ever worked on in the past few years had to do with the development of new products, and in order to bring a fresh take on these product ideas they got chefs involved. Be it an indulgent chocolate pudding, frozen pasta entrees for Millennials, “hard” juice for Generation X, or school lunch boxes for tweens, combining sensory and product development departments with chefs, she insisted, adds creativity. What’s more, Mazzucchelli predicts that as sensory evaluation continues to grow based on consumer behavior, there will be blurring of the lines between sensory evaluation and market research. It seems the future global sensory coordinator will have a wide range of all-encompassing techniques.

Any interested up-and-coming Culinologists®?

 

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