IFST Sensory Science Group celebrates individuality!

Variety is said to be the spice of life. We all value our individuality and the opportunities it brings. Society also benefits from a diversity of ideas and talent. And who doesn’t like a bit of the personal touch when it comes to receiving a gift? Is this also true in the world of sensory and consumer science?

Celebrating Individuality was the topic the IFST Sensory Science Group discussion session held on 14 November 2018 at the Sutton Bonington campus of the University of Notthingham. The platform provided a forum to look at some of the ways in which acuities and preferences of individuals can vary, and what the implications of this might be for the field. 

The first two speakers focused on new and important areas of taste science, while the third introduced personalisation trends for consumers within the food and drink sector.

  • Martha Skinner, Research Fellow in the Division of Food Science at the University of Nottingham, spoke about her research into thermal taster status.  About half the population appears to be thermal tasters, and this is defined as the experience of ‘phantom’ tastes as the tongue is cooled or heated. Thermal tasters are also more sensitive to other tastes and this could impact on food choices and health. Martha has been using a novel multi-disciplinarian approach to compare responses to stimuli between thermal tasters and those who are not thermal tasters with some interesting results.
  • Xirui Zhou is a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Reading. Given the background that fat is being considered as the sixth basic taste, Xirui is studying the links between oral gustatory fat perception and individual genetics and physical traits such as salivary lipase levels and fungiform papillae density, etc. The impact of such work may be in improving the reformulation of low-fat foods to maintain both consumer liking and satiety in the long term.
  • Emma Gubisch, Head of Consumer and Sensory Insight at Leatherhead Food Research discussed how personalisation is gaining a great deal of interest in the food and drink industry.  At one end of the spectrum existing products are customised and tailored, and at the other end products/diets are developed and designed to match individual’s genetics, physiology and medical and health needs. Co-creation seems to be a method of engaging consumers while collecting and leveraging the amazing range of their individual preferences and creativity. Emma presented insights from qualitative and quantitative research that explored consumers attitudes and desires in this area.

After the presentations, delegates broke into groups and discussed the following questions:

  • Which senses might demonstrate large inter individual variations in acuity or perception? What does this mean for sensory/consumer science?
  • How could sensory scientists leverage individual differences in taste perception to their advantage?
  • What is the link between individual differences in acuity and differences in preference and choice?
  • How will understanding individual differences impact on the methods we use in the future? How about the way we interpret results and/or how findings are applied?

The feedback was that individual differences in sensory acuities are certainly interesting and worth researching, but their implications on methodologies and interpretation are still unclear. Some delegates voiced the opinion that in terms of applied testing, the impact on variability of response caused by other factors such as context and demographics is likely to be much larger than those due to inherent individual sensory variations.  But much is still to be discovered.

On the consumer side, the concept of personalised offerings was felt to be very exciting.  For example, in the future, artificial intelligence might advise food and drink choices for the individual in a similar manner to how we are now introduced to music or books. But the concern is that while catering to individual needs and preferences may appear to provide more choice; it could eventually lead to quite restricted (although uniquely optimised) diets. Could this signal the death of social eating and shared meals as we know them?  A possibility, but not too likely it was agreed while delegates chatted over an appetising lunch spread that catered to all dietary needs.

The event was very well-attended, and everyone seemed to enjoy the speakers’ presentations and lively the discussion session following. Hopefully each attendee found something within the proceedings that met their individual sensory and consumer knowledge needs.

Carol Raithatha, Carol Raithatha Limited