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Tasting Panel Tips: What do you really taste?

Tasting Panel Tips - What do you really taste

Emily Ross, Beverage Account Manager

You’ve done all your market research; analyzed trends, talked with experts, picked a target market. The budget is set and financing came through. Now comes the fun part, actually developing the product your team has been envisioning. It doesn’t matter if it’s your very first or your 100th, the product development process is always the fun part. It’s when you get to move from paper and numbers to actual reality.

A crucial step in this process is the tasting panel – where you evaluate samples to make sure your dream product is coming to life and tastes exactly as you wanted. Everyone does them differently and they range from laid back to relatively formal. While the format you choose will likely depend on your company or the project goals, below are five tips that can (and should) be applied no matter the format. These tips ensure you are getting the best feedback possible and that you are truly tasting and accurately judging the sample.

Clean those taste buds!

We have all been there; you rush to an early morning meeting, chugging coffee on your way. Maybe you just enjoyed an excellent lunch at your favorite burrito shop. Perhaps you just popped in a piece of gum. All these things affect your taste buds and will make it really hard for you to pick up small flavor differences in your samples. Think of it as the toothpaste/orange juice phenomenon, but on an even smaller scale. Everything you have eaten that day can have an effect on how you perceive a flavor.

To combat this challenge, try to schedule your taste panels a little before lunch – that way morning coffee will have worn off and people’s lunch menus won’t be a factor. If you can’t control this by the time of the meeting, have pallet cleansers available like water and un-salted crackers. Pallet cleansers aren’t just a movie myth for an eleven course meal, they help neutralize lingering flavors, giving you a more accurate panel.

Finally, if you are sick I suggest opting out of the tasting panel – there is no way what you taste that day is what you are going to taste after that cold clears up. Even if you don’t have a stuffed nose, chances are any medicine you are taking for a cold, flu, or infection is affecting your taste buds.

 Shhhh, keep the initial comments to yourself.

Sitting in a group and trying the product can be fun, but you may not get everyones’ true opinion. Once someone starts shouting out comments you have lost the unbiased opinions of the group. Everyone has different preferences and it is good to understand them since the same thing will happen with your consumers. Let everyone taste without commenting and ask them write down their thoughts.  Once everyone has finished, you can discuss.

Not only does this eliminate biasing each other, but it ensures you hear the opinion of more introverted tasters. This process can be formal, with surveys and comment sections or can be as simple as everyone jotting down a couple notes on the corner of their notebook.

Oh, that reminds me… use descriptors your team is familiar with.

Everyone will have different experiences in your group. While a flavor chemist may taste a floral top note with a light burnt note and sweet finish; your team might just taste vanilla. Make sure the group agrees on what descriptors you are using and explain what they are.

The world of flavoring has a variety of descriptors like astringent, barney, oxidized, etc. If your team doesn’t know what they mean or have never tasted them before don’t use them. Also, realize you can train your team to be able to recognize specific flavors. If you find good examples of things like bitter (caffeine anhydrous), oxidized (old butter), astringent (whey protein), you can have your team taste these and over time they will learn to identify them in products – bringing your flavor panel to a whole new level.

What is your vertical limit?

This is a tempting rule to break, especially if you are on a tight timeline. Your team should not be trying 20 samples in a sitting or even a day. A good rule of thumb is no more than 4 samples per sitting and 3 sittings per day. But if you are tasting ‘strong flavors’ like coffee or mint or hot/cold samples you may need to reduce that number. Over time your taste buds get exhausted and you will no longer be able to pick out different flavors.

I know what you’re thinking… “We need to get this done and we can’t do that if we only taste four samples at a time”! But realize that you might have a winner, but your taste buds were saturated so you thought there was an off note, when it was exactly what you needed. Or worse, you approved something that when you taste it the next week it’s nothing like you remembered.

You can also reduce taste bud fatigue by starting with the lightest flavor and working down to the strongest (Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate, Mocha, Mint). Once more, be sure to drink water and eat pallet cleansers like un-salted crackers or carrots in ensure an accurate panel.

Communication is key!

The best flavor session in the world won’t mean anything if you don’t communicate the results back to the formulator. Whether it’s your R&D team, your co-manufacture, or a flavor house, if they don’t understand your comments they won’t be able to fix the problem.

This is where all of the things above come into play: accurate descriptors, good comments, and a variety of tasters. Each component helps your technical team make the changes you want. Any information you can share will help the formulator pin down exactly what needs to be adjusted.

For example: if you comment, “We didn’t like it, it tasted weird,” the formulator might scrap the whole flavor for a new one, but if you say, “we tasted a weird flavor, kind of fruity as an aftertaste on the chocolate,” the formulator will know they just need to adjust one small piece of the flavor. The better your feedback the quicker the process will go.

These are only a few of the factors that affect flavoring. If you are interested, there is an entire science behind the process of flavors from how our taste buds work though what chemicals result in different flavors. If you have any questions let Agropur Ingredients know and we can help you make your next flavor panel more accurate and therefore more valuable! Good luck and happy flavoring!