I grew up believing I was going to be a doctor. I was 10 years old and considered my existential reason to be alive was to save lives and become the future of surgical procedures. That dream lived right until I encountered a bloody and grotesque hospital visit when my sister slashed her hand on a vegetable cutter.
From that shattered dream, I started to re-build. My concern for health led me to study nutrition, my passion for grocery shopping led me to the food industry. My masters included an internship in the sensory and consumer insights at a flavor house. To many of my friends and family, I “made flavors” or “tasted stuff” or for a living.
I explained that we differentiate and describe products beyond just “yum” and “yuck” by using the senses of trained people to identify the perceptible characteristics of food. This often landed to the response, “Oh my gosh, that’s so random!!!!”
I “made flavors” or “tasted stuff” for a living.
Sensory and Consumer Insights
Sensory and consumer insights is beautiful scientific mixture of statistics, building jargon, psychology and physiology that has created a powerful art which can be leveraged in many business developments and marketing strategies. We sometimes use regular consumers or train ordinary people to become tasting machines that are able to define the basis of consumer liking by addressing the product attributes.
The science examines taste, texture, aroma, appearance, trigeminal response, and sound that are often determined at a subconscious level that create a judgement on how much they like the product.
Sensory also encompasses of understanding why consumers choose what they do by looking at their behaviors. The majority of my experience in sensory science has looked beyond the physical perception of food, and measured the emotional connection between a person and flavors.
The project provoked my knowledge of human physiology and psychology, and analyzing these complex and variable responses by using statistics. Sensory scientists can analyze and interpret large sensory and consumer data sets, and breakdown the responses to create stories that have important commercial implications.
Today, the world is driven by food consumption and demand. Take the ultimate comfort food, cake. People love cake because of the moistness, the sweetness, the delicacy, yet the home cooked emotional feel to it. But don’t forget, they want it to be healthy with low amounts of fat and sugar, low cost and just the way grandma made it. So once production of the “perfect” is completed, how does the company know they succeeded to keep it on store shelves longer than a few months?
They come on over to the sensory department, they can run the consumer insights, quantify the sweetness, moisture, crumbliness, flavor and compare it to a gourmet cake. They validate all their work through multivariate analysis and send it over to marketing to advertise the product how the consumers perceived it.
Albeit small segment of the production line, I found my place in the food industry where my interest is my meal ticket. As I look for work now, I learned that no matter what your background and how specific your desires, the food industry entails something for anyone.
Dana McCauly, previously Executive Director of FoodStarter said–when I asked for advice about building a career and the importance of networking– “It’s not hunting, its farming”.
By meeting and networking with various people in the industry, I found a way to pursue my dreams.
About the Author:
Having recently graduated from MSc. in Nutrition from Wageningen University, Zahabia has a diverse portfolio in nutrition, food science and development. She has held job roles in Netherlands, India, Philippines and Canada and now is looking to continue building her career in the food and beverage industry. She loves photography, cooking without a recipe and grocery shopping.
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