Taste testIt’s hard for taste tests performed in lab environments to produce results that work in real-world contexts.Photo: UGA College of AgricultureFood Studies features the voices of 11 volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. You can explore the full series here.

Start talking about sensory science, and food science in general, and most people will assume you are also talking about the industrial food system. Although it is a science shaped by the assumptions of the food industry, I don’t like to look at it that way. I love what I tend to call (with a bit of a self-deprecating smirk) “real food,” and I think handmade, artisan, and local foods are just as worthy of scientific inquiry as foods produced on a factory line. So how can we make sensory science examine this kind — my kind — of food?

Sensory science is a sub-discipline of food science that originated, like so much of that field, in the industrialization of the food system during and after World War II. The first inquiries into the sensory properties of food were motivated by a need to feed the troops. It turned out that soldiers wouldn’t happily eat just anything; meals that were formulated to be nutritionally adequate were often rejected for reasons of personal preference. This story was repeated throughout the middle of the century as the government repeatedly attempted to introduce nutritional foods into hunger relief programs. So sensory science was born out of the demonstrated need to quantitatively measure food acceptability.

Because of its origins, sensory science has evolved to serve the needs of an industrialized food system. It is perfectly adapted to evaluate foods that are mass-produced and consistent over time. If we want to understand, for example, which type of canned pasta sauce is best accepted by the average consumer, we can, because that sauce is the same today as it was yesterday, and it will be exactly the same tomorrow as it was today. We can even segment the population — to give you a famous-within-the-discipline-anecdote — to figure out that we need one Smooth, one Chunky, and one Zesty Italian sauce product. We can then employ trained panels to quantitatively evaluate how those products differ in terms of defined sensory terms, like sour, tomato flavor, and umami.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Although “tomato flavor” sounds pretty vague, there is a real theoretical basis for all this sensory work: the psychological discipline of psychophysics. The goal of psychophysics is to figure out rough equations that predict psychological responses to physical stimuli (hence the name); in other words, it is an attempt to quantify exactly how the average human responds to the external inputs we encounter on a daily basis. A psychophysicist might try to arrive at the noticeable difference between two sounds, for example, or work out how much more concentrated a solution of salt needs to be to taste twice as salty. 

As you might imagine, psychophysics is usually conducted in tightly controlled laboratory conditions. Psychophysicists don’t go out into the everyday world and investigate sound differences in busy dining rooms; that would be insanely difficult, and the number of confounding factors is uncountable. Similarly, sensory scientists have not, historically, found ways to go out into the world and understand the food they are studying in context. The descriptive analysis of pasta sauce is never performed in your grandmother’s kitchen; consumer preference tests for coffee are never conducted on sleepy, irritable, morning-breathed consumers who’ve just rolled out of bed.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

This can be (and, historically, has been) framed as a good thing. Humans are full of odd whims, bad moods, and sentimental attachments that have no place in controlled experiments. The problem, however, is that there is increasing evidence that all of these human foibles are fundamentally connected to our sensory lives. Everyone knows the story of the wine that a panel of experts swore up and down was stellar when it was labeled as expensive, and mediocre when they thought it was Two-Buck Chuck. Less well-known but equally true are the findings that eating with friends makes the food taste better, that traditional foods inevitably taste better as long as consumers know they’re traditional, and that beer dosed with balsamic vinegar is perfectly drinkable, as long as you taste it before you know what’s in it. The more we learn about the human sensory system, the more we realize that it is not merely a passive system for monitoring external impressions; it is, at a fundamental level, a set of active, context-dependent tools that we employ to make informed judgments about the world in which we find ourselves.

My dissertation research begins to address this complex puzzle. I’m not interested in discarding decades of sensory science work; there is a lot of value in what’s been established and the methodologies that we now — to some degree — understand. But I think there is room for a more sophisticated approach to how we, as human beings, go about the mundane and miraculous business of perceiving the world around us, and, especially, the foods we mindlessly consume or obsessively pursue.

That’s why my dissertation proposal on Vermont artisan cheese uses methodology not only from sensory science, but also from the social sciences — primarily anthropology. My plan is to use focus group work and ethnographic interviews to gain real insight into the personal values and mental structures that allow us to make sensory judgments about properties — organic, local, artisan — that are not obviously relevant to perception. Armed with that information, I’ll then conduct a series of quantitative, formal, sensory evaluation sessions to examine the effect of non-sensory information on sensory perception. 

In the end, I hope to improve sensory science, providing insights and tools to help move it outside the laboratory and the factory, and into real life. After all, the industrial food system can make a lot of things — some are good, some are bad — but it has no monopoly on our senses. Isn’t it time the science reflected that?