For people who work in the food manufacturing industry, a good sense of taste is of paramount importance. Year after year, the annual Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation confirms that taste is by far the most important consideration for consumers when it comes to making food and beverage purchase decisions. Consequently, it’s helpful for food industry professionals to find ways to improve their own sense of taste in order to be able to deliver the delicious products that consumers want.
Furthermore, a sense of taste isn’t important just for people like food flavorists. Those in other roles may also need to demonstrate a heightened sense of taste, even if their work never takes them anywhere near a flavor lab. For instance, a marketer might need to describe the exact type of strawberry flavor a product should have to someone in the R&D department, or a business development manager may be called on to justify the cost of a particular ingredient that is essential for a product’s flavor.
So what exactly can someone in the food and beverage industry do to become a better taster? A recent article from the taste and nutrition company Kerry offers the following suggestions:
Understand the terminology involved.
To be able to effectively discuss matters of taste and flavor, it’s important to have a good understanding of the jargon used in the industry. For example, “taste” is the specific term for what we perceive through our taste buds; this experience is also described as “gustatory.” On the other hand, “flavor” is a much broader term for the experience we derive from our gustatory sense of taste and our olfactory sense of smell working together.
Optimize your ability to taste.
Tasting sessions, where different products in development are sampled, are commonplace activities for food and beverage professionals. A few simple steps can help you make the most of these sessions by optimizing your ability to taste. Start by not eating, drinking, or smoking for at least 30 minutes before the tasting. Then, limit the number of samples tasted to a maximum of six per session, and be sure to move the food around in your mouth while chewing so that it can come into contact with all the taste receptors. Finally, neutralize your mouth between samples by rinsing with water or taking a bite of an unsalted soda cracker.
Outside the tasting session, you can develop and retain a strong sense of taste by eating a balanced diet that isn’t too heavy on any one basic flavor. Overconsumption of a particular taste can lead to desensitization. For example, someone who eats a lot of salt will find it more difficult to taste and identify salty flavors in foods that are lightly salted.
Take each step slowly.
In a tasting session, it’s important to take each step slowly to get the full flavor experience of the product. First of all, smell the food or beverage sample that’s you’re about to taste. Then, chew it thoroughly, holding it gently in your mouth while thinking about the words that best describe the taste and flavor. Finally, swallow, to maximize the olfactory and gustatory perceptions and take note of any lingering tastes, and finish by writing down the most important words that describe the experience.
Practice makes perfect.
For food and beverage professionals, the main flavor-related challenge is not the tasting process itself, but rather the attempt to describe accurately and evocatively the results of that process to those who have not experienced it.
According to Kerry analysts, practice makes perfect when it comes to describing tastes and flavors. To hone the ability for description, those who work with food flavors should practice describing everything they eat and drink. For example, what words can give the best sense of a product’s taste to someone who has never tried it? Continually refining the experience of tasting, and expanding the vocabulary used to describe it, can help us to facilitate access to all the subtle nuances of flavor.
Understand the other qualities that affect taste perception.
While the senses of smell and taste have the greatest impact on how we perceive flavor, our experience is also affected by multiple other senses and emotional responses. It’s important to be aware of this in order to be able to gauge whether a reaction to a product’s taste is due to the flavor itself, or to some other association. For example, a particular smell or taste might remind you of an unpleasant experience in your past, which could negatively impact your enjoyment of the food in a way that has nothing to do with the product.
When it comes to taste and flavor, variety truly is the spice of life. Food and beverage professionals must learn to differentiate between very similar flavors and taste sensations, so the more they expose themselves to a wide variety of products, the better they will become at recognizing and describing very specific tastes.