Scarce skills in Natural and Agricultural Sciences
Focus on a Sensory Scientist: Prof Riëtte de Kock (Department of Consumer and Food Sciences)
Q: What can you study at UP to become a Sensory Scientist?
A: A BSc Food Science, BSc Culinary Science, BSc Nutrition or BConsumer Science (Food Retail Management) qualification from UP can be the step towards becoming a Sensory Scientist.
Q: What does a Sensory Scientist do? What does the job entail?
A: A Sensory Scientist investigates how the properties of products (in my case food products) are perceived by consumers that use them. We study what consumers see, hear, feel, taste and smell when they handle and consume products. We use different methods, instruments and also human subjects for the purpose. We trained individuals to serve on panels to systematically evaluate and describe the sensory properties of food items. Regular consumers are recruited to participate in food evaluation tasks in order to explore and better understand what they like and dislike. We also employ various instruments and tools to measure properties like the colour, texture and flavour properties of food items to better understand the reasons why consumers prefer some properties more than others.
Sensory Science projects are really exciting as participants are rewarded to use their senses to the maximum.
Q: Describe a typical day in the life of a Sensory Scientist
A: Sensory Scientists are problem solvers. They spend time to understand what aspects of the taste, smell, texture, sound or appearance of products need to be investigated and why. They then apply the most suitable methods (humans or instruments) to use and the most appropriate environment to test the food products in. Sometimes a specifically designed and equipped sensory laboratory is used for the purpose while the home or even sports field may be more suited for testing other sensory problems. After a detailed analysis of the test results, a route of action is discussed and recommended.
Q: How does Sensory Science fit in the bigger discipline of Food Science?
A: The nutritional value of uneaten food is zero. Food waste is a big problem for modern society. Food products may contain lots of wonderful nutrients but if it is not appealing and acceptable to consumers then it will not be of any value. The look and feel, and taste of foods provide key inputs for consumers and affect emotional responses. Sensory scientists determine the shelf life of products, are part of food product development teams, and positively contribute to enhancing the food experience and wellbeing of consumers.
Q: What skills do you need?
A: You need to be curious about what you see, smell, hear, taste and feel and the factors that influence these experiences. You need to enjoy working with people, have high ethical standards, a keen interest in science and psychology, be a team player. Innovative thinking and a love for statistics are also desirable traits.
Q: Why did you decide to become a Sensory Scientist?
A: My fun answer to this question is always: “When I entered this world many years ago, following my senses was pure instinct. I was hooked on what my senses could tell me about food ever since.”
Seriously, I do not like routine and this field allows me to solve different problems on a daily basis. My days are never boring. Sensory Science involves so many different aspects and I am constantly learning. I have to understand human physiology, the psychology behind food choices and consumer behaviour, the chemical, physical and microbiological properties of food ingredients and the influence of processing and technology.
Q: In what fields/industries etc can you work as a Sensory Scientist?
A: Sensory Scientists work in companies that develop and manufacture food, cosmetics, personal care products, tech products. They also find employment in related industries e.g. packaging, ingredient suppliers (flavours, colour and texturisers), market research agencies, retailers. All sectors where an understanding of the interface between product and users are explored can benefit from well-trained sensory scientists. It is predicted that sensory scientists will play an even greater role in the future, for example to ensure that consumers can engage with aroma, taste and texture of products in the digital space.
Q: Do you have any advice for prospective Sensory Scientists?
A: Use your senses and listen to the sensory properties of your food every day. Develop a sensory language to describe what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
Q: Interesting current research that you work on?
A: We have recently started with an international project (innofoodafrica.eu) to investigate the how the sensory properties of novel products made from sorghum, finger millet, teff, amaranth, faba bean, orange-fleshed sweet potato, Bambara groundnut and cowpea may influence consumers’ choices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Studies to improve the sensory properties of gluten-free bread, novel low-fat mayonnaise-type products provided valuable insights. Another project investigates the practices used for control of the sensory properties of food in companies.
We are always recruiting consumers for our UP Consumer Database.
If you are interested to receive invitations to participate in food evaluation projects, please sign up at bit.ly/UPConsumers