Use your senses at the UFS Sensory Lab

An example of samples that are prepared for the panelists. PHOTO: Gypseenia Lion

How often do we consume fruit and vegetables without knowing what processes they went through before breaking them down into particles in our bodies? Bloemfontein Courant participated in a Sensory Lab panel at the University of the Free State (UFS) as panellists tasting mini tomatoes.

According to sensory analyst, Carina Bothma, sensory analysis is a scientific discipline. It is used to evoke reactions from the panellists by using the five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.

“These reactions can be captured from the first bite to complete mastication and are then statistically analysed and interpreted by Wilben Pretorius, who is in charge of the statistical analysis of the sensory data. The lab is also a teaching environment, as sensory analysis forms part of academic research projects. Several postgraduate degrees have been done in the laboratory, and many are currently in the works.” She further explained that the sensory profiling of food is important to improve product quality and to develop new products for the market. “Almost all the food products available on shelves today had to go through the development process, and their unique characteristics are the result of sensory evaluation.”

The UFS Sensory Lab falls under the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and is part of the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development.

Masters student, Almaré de Bruin, who oversees the organising and planning of the panels, welcomed panellists and assisted them throughout the process of tasting tomatoes. A seamless yet intense process that lasted for approximately 15 minutes per session. Panellists waited in anticipation for the unknown.

“The regular panellists of the sensory lab are mostly UFS staff members and students (due to them having easy access to the main campus and being readily available, which is referred to as convenience sampling). However, members of the public, according to a specific target group (identified by the client) may be required during consumer panels. A children’s panel was conducted at the beginning of 2021 and the assistance of a private school was obtained to test frozen foods for a specific age range.”

Once the data has been collected, Pretorius performs a statistical analysis. A report is compiled and sent to the client. If a product requires improvements, another sensory test will be conducted until the desired results are achieved. Pretorius and De Bruin are assisted by five Honours’ students and one undergraduate student. Why would anyone want to be a panellist?

According to Bothma, being a panellist provides the opportunity to participate in research outside of one’s professional environment, field of study, or area of expertise. The sensory lab, therefore, has two uses. Internally, to educate sensory scientists for the food industry and “externally many businesses use sensory evaluation as a tool to better understand their target market (the consumer), define product concepts, streamline the development of formulations and substitute ingredients.”

De Bruin said that being part of the sensory lab contributes to improving her skills and extending her knowledge beyond her tertiary education. She added that she also enjoys the fact that she gets to live out her passion for food and product development every day, as well as the fact that she gets to meet new people and build relationships.

Gypseenia Lion