A culinary odyssey
The importance of sensory – facts and myths debunked
By John Placko
As a chef, I’ve always been aware of the importance of sensory, and my interest peaked when I worked for large food companies and ultimately when my passion for molecular cuisine engulfed my career.
I met John Hale about four years ago and was fascinated by his depth of knowledge on the subject of sensory, so I approached him to collaborate on this article. John has worked for large multinationals and grocery chains in the U.K., Europe and Asia before settling in Canada. He recently started a consulting business with a number of seasoned professionals with complementary skills.
Let’s start with the five basic senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch. When creating dishes that are known as molecular cuisine the aim is to hit all five senses to deliver a memorable eating experience.
- Sight: Sight is the first sense you eat your food with. For this reason chefs are trained to make food look as good as possible.
- Smell: Eighty-five per cent of what we taste is attributed to smell. Try it for yourself. Hold your nose and eat a piece of chocolate. After 10 seconds of chewing release the grip on your nose.
- Taste: There are six basic tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami and metallic. There are myths surrounding the map of the tongue, as seen in diagram 1. It was considered the norm that certain taste perceptions could only be detected on certain areas of the tongue, but this is not the case. All taste buds can detect all the primary tastes to some degree, but they are more sensitive to one of the primary tastes.
A taste bud generally lives for 14 days before dying off and being replenished. As people get older replenishment is not as quick and thus the person loses their sense of taste. One of the ways to enhance the taste satisfaction is to use more herbs and spices in food for the elderly. However, eating spicy food is not the answer to helping them enjoy their food.
Did you know that people have different levels of sensitivity to the perception of taste? There are three categories of tasters: non-tasters, average tasters and super tasters. Super tasters in Canada account for approximately 25 per cent of the population, with women outnumbering men, although in the U.K. the per cent of super tasters is around five per cent because of the effect of their spicy diet. Super tasters are key to the evaluation process of recipe development because if they can’t taste a difference between two products, how could the masses detect the difference? Sensory panels use super taster when an expert panel is called for.
Average tasters account for approximately 50 per cent of the population, and non-tasters for the remaining 25 per cent. A trained consumer panel will consist of a blend of average tasters and super tasters, but small-scale panels would never use non-tasters. In large scale panelling where the consumer panel is not screened, there could be as much as 25 per cent of the panel that cannot taste, which is why the number of tasters is large to account for this variance.
To see what kind of taster you are, buy a pack of PTC paper strips. Place a strip on your tongue. A super taster will have a reaction within a millisecond while a non-taster tastes nothing.
- Hearing: Sound is key to the food experience. Take celery for example. If it doesn’t have a crunch when you eat it, you most likely won’t enjoy it. The same applies to a soft, chewy cookie that is supposed to be crispy.
- Touch: The most sensitive area of the body is the lips. Our predecessors quickly learned that if they put an unfamiliar berry on the inside of their bottom lip they could tell if it was edible. If their lip went numb they knew it was poisonous.
Now let’s turn our attention to the five key elements used when evaluating food on a sensory panel of trained tasters: appearance, aroma, flavour, texture and aftertaste.
- Appearance: If the food doesn’t look good no one is going to want to eat it.
- Aroma: There are two types of aroma: retronasal, which is the aroma released from your mouth when you are chewing your food; and orthonasal, which occurs when you are sniffing your food. When you have a cold you can’t taste your food, due to the nasal tubes to your olfactory nerve being blocked from receiving the aroma.
- Flavour: Flavour comprises taste, olfactory senses and trigeminal sense. Our sense of taste is fully developed by the time we reach puberty and can go on well into old age. However, there are factors that govern whether or not we can taste in our advancing years. One of the major factors is eating hot and spicy foods on a regular basis (two or more times per week), as this tends to kill off the growth of the taste buds. So if you want to lengthen the life span of your taste buds then stay away from spicy foods. Staying off spicy foods for three weeks will allow the taste buds to regenerate.
- Texture: A softer product will release its flavour faster than a hard, brittle product like a hard candy, even if the flavour is the same concentration. There is an expectation of texture for various food types, and texture is often seen as a sign of freshness. A thick custard gives a more satisfying experience vs. a crème anglaise, which is a lot thinner in viscosity. Wines that have a thin finish are seen to be less satisfying than a wine with a full, rounded mouthfeel.
- Aftertaste: This is a key attribute when drinking coffee. A flavour with a short aftertaste is seen to be less satisfying versus a coffee with a medium to long aftertaste. Temperature is also key with coffee. There are certain types of coffees on the market which when drunk hot have a very floral and citrus flavour. As the coffee cools down the bitter notes come through and can become harsh, however, when the coffee is drunk cold sour notes come bursting through and it is likened to biting the flesh of a lemon.
In my next column I’ll cover sensory topics such as the type of sensory panel you should use, the kind of results different tests will give, and how to report your results. For more information about John Hale visit www.halefood.com
John Placko is culinary director of Toronto’s Modern Culinary Academy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ModernCA.ca