When was the last time you were fully mindful of your eating experience? The crumble of a cookie with lingering butter flavor, the sweet and tangy taste of a hot cup of tomato soup, or the distinct smell of a tomato sauce are all examples of sensory experiences with food. Our like or dislike of a food is influenced by all of our senses—not just taste. Campbell’s sensory scientists work with our brands to make sure our food tastes great and meets people’s expectations. This month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ompriya Makani, Campbell Sr. Research Scientist—Sensory & Consumer Science R&D, to learn how sensory scientists improve existing products and help develop new foods and beverages, driven by consumers’ sensory experience and feedback. Here’s our Q&A.
Williams: How do we use our senses, especially taste, to experience food?
Makani: The tasting experience involves more than just our taste buds. Our senses interact and work together when we eat. It starts with our eyes; how something looks impacts our impression of a food. The sense of smell is crucial in sensory evaluation, too. Most of what we “taste” is actually sensed by our olfactory cells within the nasal canal. If you had your nose plugged and were blind folded, you may notice that a drink is bitter and warm, but likely couldn’t differentiate coffee from black tea. Textures like grainy, chewy, dry or oily, also help us evaluate food and determine whether or not we like it. Even hearing plays a role in how we experience food and beverages. The sizzling sound of a burger on the grill or the crunch we hear as we bite into a cookie are all part of enjoying food.
Williams: Why is sensory science so important?
Makani: Sensory science drives better and faster food design that meets people’s needs. We use sensory science when we develop new products or improve existing ones. For example, a Campbell brand may want to introduce a new ingredient that delivers the same, expected flavor, while other times they want to improve the taste of a product or overall experience. Sensory evaluation helps them hit that target.
Williams: How did you become interested in sensory science work?
Makani: I was born and raised in India on my family’s farm. After my undergraduate studies in Horticulture (the science of growing fruits and vegetables), I helped my father plant, harvest, market and sell a variety of dates, but not the type you are familiar with here in the states. After a large harvest, we faced the challenge of selling 100 tons of dates in one month while maintaining quality, with limited distribution options. This influenced my decision to work on a master’s degree in Post-Harvest Management at UC Davis. My work focused on sensory and consumer evaluation of mangos from different countries in Latin America. I gained experience in how sensory research is conducted, and the different types that are used. Within a few years, my expertise brought me to Campbell, where I work with an interdisciplinary team as a senior sensory scientist.
Williams: Can you share a bit about what you do at Campbell and who you work with?
Makani: I work with product developers, marketers, nutrition experts and more within the meal, beverage, soup and sauce businesses. One of my favorite things about my job is how diverse it is. Each of the brands have a different perspective and bring unique opportunities for sensory scientists to share their knowledge.
The sensory scientists at Campbell collaborate on consumer testing and we act as a liaison between our consumers and the brands. We gather and summarize feedback from taste testers to inform any changes that could improve a product. While this work is vital to my job, my top priority is ensuring that our food and beverages deliver the taste consumers want and expect from Campbell. We recently used consumer input, taste testing and feedback for the relaunch our Well Yes!® canned soups.
Williams: What are the different types of sensory tests?
Makani: There are three main types of sensory tests we can perform with consumers at Campbell. Descriptive tests are used to determine how products differ in sensory attributes. We use this type of test to understand the similarities and differences between Campbell's® products versus our competition. For example, does our sauce taste creamier or sweeter than another brand? We use difference tests to determine whether there is a perceived difference between samples. For example, if we wanted to lower the sodium in a product by 50mg per serving, we could use a difference test to determine if there was a perceivable difference between products. Consumer tests help us determine if consumers like the change we made. In this type of test, we already know there is a difference. We are evaluating if consumers like the product the same or even more as a result of the change we made. For example, if we changed from high fructose corn syrup to sugar, does the consumer like the product as much as before?
Williams: How can health professionals apply what you shared in their areas of practice?
Makani: Here are some things to keep in mind.
- When working with clients to reduce negative nutrients like added sugar or saturated fats, take a stepwise approach, that slowly reduces negative nutrients over time.
- Sensory scientists do a lot of work during recipe development to make sure products in the marketplace meet people’s expectations, and a lot of testing went into those products. Consider taste when making your recommendations, as we all need to work toward finding a balance between taste and nutrition.
- Clients can absolutely develop a taste for something over time. For example, I hadn’t tasted an avocado while growing up in India. At first introduction, it seemed bland and unremarkable to me, but over time, it became an acquired, desired taste for me! So, keep encouraging clients to try new foods.
- Adaptation is a decrease in response under conditions of constant stimulation that occurs with taste as well as smell. That’s why people can’t typically smell their own perfume or cologne quickly after applying it. The same holds true for sweets as nothing will be perceived sweeter than the first bite.
Ompriya & Kate
Ompriya is a senior research scientist in Sensory & Consumer Science at the Campbell Soup Company. Born and raised on a farm, Ompriya has spent her entire life in food and agriculture. With extensive experience from farm to shelf, she is dedicated to growing and making delicious food. At Campbell, she helps meal and beverage brands delight their consumers with classic, comforting foods and new, adventurous flavors. She received her master’s degree in Horticulture, from UC Davis, with a specialization in the postharvest management of fruits and vegetables and sensory evaluation of foods. She also obtained a bachelor’s degree in applied science with an extended major in Horticulture, from the University of Queensland, Australia. When she takes a break from making food taste great, you can find Ompriya working on home improvement projects or enjoying the outdoors with family and friends. Ompriya believes strongly in self-care and chooses yoga, meditation, aerobics, or dancing for relaxation.