One of the best things to come out of Tiffany Tong’s interview is that she talks about tasting things. In her fun work at Canada’s Smartest Kitchen, she’s not even a product developer but she is able to go into the lab and try stuff. From bugs to delicious steak, tasting everything is important as a product developer.
So this makes me think about how I use taste in my job. As a product developer working with other product developers, what are the techniques and tools we use to evaluate taste?
This article takes a bite out of that. When I try prototypes. How do I evaluate food? And is my sense of taste even right?
Note: I am not in any way, a flavor chemist. However, these tips are useful for the beginning product developer who uses flavors. Consult and collaborate with your flavor-house(es) for the best results.
When I try products, I try my best to analyze two main components: taste and texture. For taste, I imagine a 2 axis graph with the X axis being time and the Y axis being intensity. Your goal is to visualize the high points and the low points and then translate it to your colleagues. For example, if I am eating a peppermint product, then I have to realize two things: is the front/top note strong and does it have a refreshing aftertaste?
Texture has an added component as well. Is the bar too chewy, or too “short”? Though a bit harder to fix by request, knowing your texture allows you to manipulate the X-axis of time. With a longer chew time, you need to make the flavors interesting so you can use flavors that affect the middle or later-half of tasting the product.
Recognizing this can make you a very powerful product developer as you can then communicate this to your flavor-house of choice. Your flavor house then can give you interesting components to help improve your product like a “top-note” which satisfies the aromatic and frontal taste of your product.
I’ve seen some white label formulas with amazing combinations to enhance flavors. For example, Bourbon will somehow enhance vanilla, or marshmallow will improve a berries and cream flavor. Seeing formulators who have that type of knowledge absolutely blows my mind and some day, I aspire to be at that level.
To try and reach that point, I try something new every product. In most ideation tastings, I try and add something that’s either missing in the product or would make the product better. This creates a layer of uniqueness that helps your product be different. An example would be S’mores. Most flavor houses will just slap on marshmallows, chocolate and graham cracker flavor. But you want something essential. What if you asked for a campfire-esque essence? What would that look like? For some, people imagine a slight caramelized note and others, they add smokiness. What if you added heat? Or a crackling component using poprocks? There’s so much you can do when you try and add something unique!
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In most situations, your boss will say that your product needs more data. As you know, you are not the deciding factor in your product’s taste portfolio. Someone really really high up is. In most situations, this can easily be supplemented with data convincing whoever is approving it that this product is good to go.
But how much is too much? And what score does it take to pass?
Unfortunately, every company is different and if you don’t have a system for this, then you should take the initiative to make a quantitative system.
In any case, more than 10 is usually ideal and the more the merrier. The bigger sensory test you do, the more time it’ll take, and the more resources you’ll consume. Your boss or superiors should have a better idea on how many people they want.
A quick note! When you explain the sensory to not-science people, you have to kind of translate your data. It’s harder to say “This scored a 7 on the hedonic scale” versus “90% of the people tried this, liked it”.
Like all great skills in life, communication is vital for improving progress and tasting products is no different. The more you can describe a product to a flavor-house, the better chance for your product to be unique. You don’t have to just ask for a mango flavor, but a mango flavor so good, you’d sip it on the beach. Of course, if you have a flavor house that can translate “sipping it on a beach”, then there’s an unstoppable combo in itself.