The Science Behind the UTIA Sensory Science Center

Sensory science is a field of research that uses the principles of psychology, experimental design, neuroscience, and statistics to evaluate consumer products. Sensory science is used by many different types of companies, most notably the food industry, to optimize their products as well as guide the creation of new products. Beyond the food industry, sensory scientists can be found working at Nike helping to develop sneakers or at Procter & Gamble working with shampoo.

The UT Sensory Science and Innovation Center is well established, having helped the food industry perform sensory testing on their products for approximately twenty-five years. The sensory lab also serves as a training center for future sensory scientists, as most of the work in the lab is performed by undergraduate and graduate students. One of the main roles of the sensory lab is to provide companies information on how much consumers like their products or if consumers can iddentify differences between different formulations of their products. We bring in panelists from throughout the University and Knoxville to analyze products, which is a good opportunity to make extra money and get free food. To sign up to be a taster, go to the UT Sensory Facebook page and click the Sign Up button.

While everyday consumers give valuable information on product liking or acceptance, some clients have an interest in a more comprehensive characterization of their products. For this we bring in a small number of panelists who are trained to deconstruct flavors, textures, and other food attributes. This allows them to identify the underlying flavor notes in a product and, using references, rate how intense they are, leading to the creation of a detailed sensory profile. These sensory profiles are extremely valuable for explaining why consumers like or dislike a food. More specifically, mathematical models using the levels of flavor and texture attributes can be constructed to predict if a food will be well-liked, taking some of the guesswork out of food product development. Right now, our trained panel is working to characterize the flavor of unique single-origin coffees from all over the world.

The sensory lab also supports research on food from within the University, helping to determine if novel food technologies influence the sensory properties of the food. The sensory lab has its own active research program working on creating better methodologies for sensory testing as well as investigations into how humans interact and perceive food. Currently, the sensory lab is building a better understanding of how touch sensitivity within the oral cavity influences chewing behavior as well as texture perception and how multiple sensory inputs, such as sound and smell, can influence one another.

Curtis Luckett