Taste, smell & texture: A sensory approach to customer experience in food
Eating and drinking are multi-sensory experiences. It’s for this reason restaurateurs would spend a pretty penny to swank up their restaurants and why Bavarian waltz tunes would assault our senses when we browse for wines at the local bottle shop.
In today’s kitchens, chefs are culinary artists who balance colour and contrast to make their dishes shine with aesthetic appeal, capitalising on the fact that we eat first with our eyes, not our mouths.
On the shelves of modern supermarkets, the variety of foods on offer could easily feature in the travelogue of a foodie’s pilgrimage around the globe, with prettily-packed produce promising extraordinary pleasures for the palate.
More than just taste
In the world of food, appearances matter. And the factors that contribute to this are varied, involving everything from colour changes that may occur during processing to the combination of ingredients used to create the final product.
Smell is another factor that greatly influences food acceptance. Carried by the air to the nose and transmitted by the olfactory nerves to our brain, aroma is one of the first ways we interact with a food item we’re about to consume.
This sensory stimuli is so powerful it is often used as a marketing tool to entice customers to stick around longer in a store, spend more money or to return again and again.
Scent or aroma marketing is a strategy commonly deployed by coffee shops and bakeries for exactly this purpose. Starbucks, for example, is said to hide the odour of the foods it prepares in-store by adding the scent of coffee to their HVAC systems.
The reason? Its customers enjoy the smell of freshly brewed coffee. And secondly, Starbucks is first and foremost a coffeehouse – the smell of scrambled eggs and ham and cheese toasties might take away from that experience.
Texture is yet another organoleptic property that could make or break customer experience in food. It refers to our perception or interpretation of food structure when a food item is held in our fingers (think fried chicken), pushed by the tongue against the palate or chewed by the teeth and then sensed within the oral cavity.
To lesser-trained taste buds, this sensory quality isn’t always appreciated as a factor that determines what makes a food product good or bad. It’s also highly subjective, ie. why some people prefer well-done over medium, rare or blue steaks.
But while this is all true, there are subtleties pertaining to textural integrity that can greatly influence the customer experience, sometimes even without their knowing.
This varies according to food type. For solid foods, could be about the sensory experience associated with fracture and breaking.
A snack like potato chips, for example, needs to be crunchy to appeal to customers. Soggy chips may suggest a product that has been compromised by too much moisture content or that may have turned. This could due to a variety of factors such as a bad choice of ingredient or poor packaging or storage conditions. Mouth temperature also influences the sensory experience, ie. the crunchy chocolate bite and smooth creaminess of the chocolate melt-in-the-mouth afterwards!
For fluid foods, the most critical texture-related feature is the sensation of flow behaviour, also known as its rheological properties.
For example, body and texture, as well as melting quality, are often used to determine the quality of an ice cream. Ice creams that are overly course or have an icy texture are generally considered of poorer quality than products that are smoother, creamier and that incorporate high amounts of air.
Sensory evaluation matters to customer experience
The pleasure derived from eating or drinking is the sum of all these sensory experiences, and will heavily influence a customer’s food choice.
A plant-based jerky that’s packed with protein but not flavour or a yoghurt drink that wins for gut health but fails horribly on taste would never leave supermarket shelves. A delicious cookie recipe that loses its crunch after just two weeks in jars would probably go to the bin more than the belly.
Today, more so than ever, food producers need to be extremely cognisant of why all the sensory attributes of food – taste, texture, smell and appearance – are important to customer experience. And to achieve reproducible products, they must also know the factors that influence these characteristics, whether it has to do with their daily production processes or the ingredients they use.
The realities of the digital era are such that even mom and pop stores operate in a global marketplace, with direct and indirect competitors coming from across multiple industries and multiple locales.
Sensory evaluation is an aspect every manufacturer and retailer must consider in the food production and innovation process – failure to do is a wasted opportunity in a market that grows increasingly saturated, and therefore competitive, by the day.
But instead of relying on trial and error to craft the perfect food product, food product development centres can help. For businesses operating across the London and Greater London areas, this is where the West London Food Innovation Lab comes in.
The West London Food Innovation Lab
The £1.5 million Lab launched last year with the support of the European Regional Development Fund was created to help food and drink startups and SMEs through their innovation pain points.
A state-of-the-art facility, it offers a wide range of services that cover the entire food production journey, including both the scientific expertise and cutting-edge equipment necessary for sensory analysis.
Its capabilities for sensory evaluation include conducting descriptive sensory profiling; shelf-life sensory profiling; identifying consumer choice drivers; and competitive benchmarking on organoleptic features.
During evaluation, products are put through a Texture Analyser or the oscillatory rheometer, the results of which are further strengthened when they are tested for sensory qualities by a Consumer Panel. Here, the analysis is conducted in six ‘sensory booths’ where panel reviewers are presented with the new formulation of the client’s products and the control products.
The process offers a pre-emptive snapshot of the customer experience in the food product, helping food producers make decisions on its design, optimisation, reformulation, production and quality assurance.
In addition, a feature that makes the West London Food Innovation Lab’s work particularly impactful is its location at the University of West London, which gives it access to a steady pool of multi-ethnic millennials and Gen Z – the largest and most important consumer generation of today.
That the University is home to the Culinary Arts school and the School of Food and Hospitality also means it has access to a wide range of academic resources, from the latest literature to professors well-versed in food science.
The Lab’s own experts have a wealth of experience between them when it comes to food development and product innovation.
Associate Professor in Food Science Amalia Tsiami, the academic support of the project, has many years of research experience in the food industry and academia within her roles at Quadram Institute, Unilever Research Laboratory, and participation in European funded projects on food product innovation, specifically looking at the importance of ingredients on product development and texture.
Product Development Chef Marianna Alexandrou comes from more than six years working in the food industry, with roles that include being the New Product Development Chef for Sainsbury’s Own Brand, and the Home Economist and Recipe Developer for Morrisons Food Magazine.
Professor Alexandros Paraskevas, the Lab’s academic lead, has extensive food and beverage operations management experience and strong links with industry, with more than 12 years working with companies like Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
Catherine Wall, the facility’s Lab Technician, holds a BSc in Nutrition from Liverpool John Moores University and is a food science graduate from University College Cork, Ireland, as well as a recipient of a Food Science and Technology MSc Walsh Scholarship at Teagasc Food Research Centre and University College Cork, Ireland.
Together, these experts and their teams have worked on over 70 successful food projects since the Lab’s opening last year, guiding it through their facility and into the market, with some products finding immediate retail success.
Their combined expertise and passion for the industry mean they are constantly growing their knowledge of food and applying that to their work, making sure every product to come from the Lab win on all the sensory properties that matter when it comes to customer experience in food.
The project ‘West London Food Innovation Lab’ has received £739,159 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (and in London the intermediate body Greater London Authority) is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information click here.