MEET: UP sensory scientist Prof Riëtte de Kock

Posted on March 05, 2021

“Sensory scientists might play an even greater role in the future – for example, to ensure that consumers can engage with the aroma, taste and texture of products in the digital space,” says Prof Riëtte de Kock, who tells us more about her fascinating career and field.

Prof Riëtte de Kock, a sensory scientist in the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at UP, chats about the ins and outs of her profession and why she gets such a kick out of it.

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 various 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: What does a sensory scientist do?
We investigate how the properties of products (in my case, food products) are perceived by consumers. We study what they see, hear, feel, taste and smell when they handle and consume products. We use different methods, instruments and human subjects for this purpose. We also train 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 consumers prefer some properties more than others.

Q: Describe your typical day.
A: We are problem-solvers, and spend time trying to understand which aspects about the taste, smell, texture, sound or appearance of products need to be investigated and why. We then apply the most suitable methods (humans or instruments) and the most appropriate environments to test the food products in. Sometimes a specifically designed and equipped sensory laboratory is used for this purpose, while the home or even a sports field might 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 into the bigger discipline of food science?
A: The nutritional value of uneaten food is zero. Food waste is a big problem in modern society. Food products could contain lots of wonderful nutrients, but if the food is not appealing and acceptable to consumers, it will not be of any value. The look, feel and taste of food 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 well-being of consumers.

Q: What do you need to study at UP to become a sensory scientist?
A: A BSc Food Science, BSc Culinary Science, BSc Nutrition or BConsumer Science (Retail Management) qualification from UP can be the step towards becoming a sensory scientist.

Q: What skills do you need? 
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 and be a team player. Innovative thinking and a love for statistics are also desirable traits.

Q: In what fields/industries can you work as a sensory scientist?
Sensory scientists work in companies that develop and manufacture food, cosmetics, personal care products and tech products. They also find employment in related industries like packaging, ingredient supply (flavours, colour and texturisers), market research agencies and 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 the aroma, taste and texture of products in the digital space.

Q: Any interesting current research that you’re working on?
 We have started working with an international project ( to investigate how the sensory properties of novel products made from sorghum, finger millet, teff, amaranth, faba bean, orange-fleshed sweet potato, Bambara groundnut and cowpea could influence the choice of consumers in SA, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Another project is investigating the practices used for control of the sensory properties of food in companies.

If you are interested in receiving invitations to participate in food evaluation projects, please sign up at

- Author Martie Meyer

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