Sensory Panels and the Future of Food
Who produces flavour? Words by Barclay Bram; Illustration by Michelle Wong
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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The word ‘producer’ means something different depending on who you’re talking to, but crucially, which industry (or even which part of the industry) you’re in. Take the new Kanye documentary jeen─yuhs for example. In part 1, Kanye is a budding hip-hop producer looking to become a rapper. He is the originator of the music he produces ─ the music starts with him making a beat and it is put in the shop window, often for not very much money. It’s made clear in jeen─yuhs that although other producers and rappers respect Kanye, the producer is the bottom feeder in this chain (at one point, he says something to the effect that he’d rather be called ‘the 100th best rapper than the best producer’).
This contrasts with another recently released music documentary, Get Back, where the role of producer differs hugely. Here it is the exuberantly dressed, fur-coated Glyn Johns, who is not in any way the originator of the music (in this case, it is The Beatles), but something close to a freelance hired-hand whose job it is to lead the sessions in a way a film director might, and then, like an editor, make something of the music he’s been given. This, in turn, is also utterly different from the producer of a film, who is the most important person in the chain because they are the originator of the money and therefore utterly irreplaceable. This type of producer is the be all and end all: when a film wins Best Picture at the Oscars, it is the producer, not the director or cast, who claims it.
One of the goals of this season of Vittles has been to complicate the role of producer in food. Today’s newsletter by Barclay Bram is a companion piece to Max Fletcher’s newsletter on the Great Taste Awards (on those who produce taste), and a continuation of themes in Bram’s article for 1843 on where the production of flavour is headed. We usually see the food producer as someone in the Kanye mould ─ the originator and least paid person in the chain. But as Jenn Rugalo pointed out in her coffee newsletter, there are multiple producers of value; Bram’s is concerned with the production of flavour, via master tasters and sensory panels, but also how these unseen producers interact with and have an effect on the producers at source, changing categories and definitions they have to abide by.
I had never given a second thought to this subject before Bram told me about it, so I hope you find all this equally fascinating. Maybe the only thing we can say for certain about producers is that they all are, and wish to remain, invisible. That is, everyone except Kanye.
Sensory Panels and the Future of Food, by Barclay Bram
What is a flavour? Pick up an artisanal chocolate bar and you’ll notice it has tasting notes: blackberry, caramel, earth. A coffee might have ‘floral notes, acidity and an aroma of cinnamon-spiced pear butter’. Wine – and its obsession with terroir – is the most obvious place to go to seek the outer limits of our ability to describe flavours: ‘youthfully imploded dark fruit flavours’ or ‘cold bonfire’, for example.
There is something poetic in these labels. You have (almost certainly, but I don’t want to presume) never tasted a cold bonfire. But the label is drawing you somewhere: the forest, pine, dying embers, a crisp night air growing increasingly cold as the fire dims. Primed in this way, you might perceive something in a wine that was previously ineffable. Here there is an attempt by the winemaker to give words to something pre-verbal and intimate, to create a bridge between consumer and producer, and among customers who are drawn to particular flavour notes. But there is still something inherently subjective in this choice of language.
Flavour is different to taste. Tastes are cultivated class signifiers, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously argued in the 1970s, in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Tastes are culturally produced, as with something like the Great Taste Awards, in which panels of self-defined ‘experts’ arbitrate what is or is not a good sausage. Flavour, on the other hand, is an attempt to objectively describe the experience we have when eating a certain food, as mediated by our individual senses. The difficulty, of course, is that we struggle to be sure whether or not what we are experiencing is the same as anyone else.
There is another, more measurable, area of flavour that exists right at the hard edge of sensory science; an interpretive process that occurs in the brain which allows us to perceive the nuances between different flavours, that we are then able to communicate to others through language. Within the food and beverage industry, this ability to measure flavour accurately is crucial: it enables us to describe products, to create new ones, and to measure batch quality. It’s how products like tea or whisky are able to always taste the same, despite the fact that the underlying ingredient at their core is always changing; in each case, a master taster is responsible for blending huge batches of different raw ingredients to create a seamlessly consistent end product. The goal here is to remove all subjectivity from describing the flavours in a given product, trying to create as objective a description as possible.
Trying to harangue people into agreeing on whether they can taste something as precise as the percentage of cocoa butter flavour in a biscuit is expensive. In some industries master tasters have their taste buds insured for millions – Jim Beveridge (I shit you not, his actual name), the recently-retired master taster of Johnnie Walker, not only had his taste buds insured, he was also granted an OBE for his services to the Scottish whisky industry. The inventor of ‘cookies & cream’ ice cream, John Harrison, who is said to have tasted samples from nearly 200 million gallons of ice cream during his three-decade career, had his taste buds insured for a million dollars by Dreyer’s. Gennaro Pelliccia might have the most expensive taste buds in the world; his are insured by Costa Coffee for £10m.
At present, the way flavours are measured in the industry takes an arcane and human approach. As well as master tasters, there are also sensory panels: a collection of experts who together form a consensus on exactly what the flavours present in any given product are. (Working in concert creates a more objective measure.) Sensory science can therefore be seen as a form of creative production, as it tries to locate flavours at scale in replicable and reliable ways: this is largely invisible to the average consumer, but no less fundamentally shapes how certain products end up in our lives.
In her lab at the University of Nottingham’s Sensory Science Centre, Dr Imogen Ramsey is tinkering with low-alcohol beer. The challenge is: How does one maintain the exact flavours present in a full-alcohol beer while removing one of the key components of the drink, i.e., the alcohol? Beyond technique, what this requires is an ability to compare the two beers accurately, to see exactly how they change now that one has less alcohol than the other. For starters, therefore, a key aim of her work over the past few years has been trying to create the first sensory lexicon for the commercial non-alcoholic lager category – something that did not exist when she started.
Annals of flavour exist within the F&B industry. One such example, the Aroma and Flavour Lexicon for Sensory Evaluation, is spiral-bound and sells on Amazon for hundreds of pounds. Inside you will learn that terms which the layperson uses interchangeably actually have very specific reference points: acetic is the ‘aromatic characteristic of white vinegar – reference: white vinegar, 5% acidity’; acrid is ‘a burnt, harsh aromatic, often associated with burnt wood or smoke – reference: charred bacon, burnt pine or pine needles.’ But while certain terms exist industry-wide, they need to be refined for each product. For the purpose of Dr Ramsey’s study, the team of ten beer experts came up with 250+ different attributes across the eighteen different non-alcoholic beers they were sampling.
This number was then whittled down across the panel of experts into something manageable and intelligible, so that they were all on the same page when identifying any of these attributes. ‘Some people might talk about sour and some might talk about acidic, but really they’re talking about the same thing’, Dr Ramsey notes. Nottingham has had a team of trained beer tasters for over twenty years, but it still took 3–4 months of shepherding to get her team to agree on the flavours they were measuring, till they could agree on a subset of twenty-three attributes1 that existed across the samples, for example, malty, hoppy, sour, and wheat.
Armed with this settled-upon language, the real work can begin. Once the data has been collected, the results come in, with a rating between 0–10 in relation to the defined attributes. Following this, a variety of statistical techniques are used to understand whether there are significant differences between the attributes: it is possible, for example, to find out whether Beer 1 has significantly more ‘banana flavour’ than Beer 2. This can then be mapped on top of consumer preference data, providing more robust insight into why a particular beer is more popular than another beyond the surface-level qualitative feedback of people saying whether they like it or not. To the untrained palate, Beer 1 might be nicer than Beer 2, but with granular sensory data, producers can steer products towards specific flavour profiles that consumers like, but don’t know how to express in any precise detail.
This work allows producers to track with more precision the specific impact that changes in techniques or underlying ingredients have on the end flavour of a product. This is why producers themselves are often the funders of such projects, either sponsoring the PhD student/project, or supporting research councils. Dr Ramsey’s study was sponsored by a food and drink research institute called Campden BRI which delivers research outputs to all their members, including all of the main breweries (think Heineken, AB InBev).
Sue Langstaff, the founder of Applied Sensory and one of the world’s foremost experts on olive oil tasting, told me it takes her two years to train up a novice panellist at her company. It’s a process that requires the trainee to sample endless varieties of olive oil until they align with the other eight panellists on terms such as ‘tomato leaf’ and ‘green almond’. The philosopher in me swoons at the thought of this. Phenomenologists are obsessed with trying to understand whether or not there exists an objective world that we are perceiving, or whether the world exists only in perception, each to our own: a world as infinite as the senses accessing it. Is there a taste of green almond somewhere? Or is it simply a linguistic trick that people like Langstaff are able to cultivate, an approximation that allows people to communicate and bridge the infinite gap of our murky subjectivity?
Either way, Langstaff’s company serves two concrete functions within the olive oil industry. The first is that producers send her samples which she is able to provide precise tasting notes for; they can then use these in marketing materials, or to better understand their own products. The second is more consequential. Her panel is the only one in the United States that is qualified to certify olive oils as ‘extra virgin’ or not. This status was conferred upon by an organisation called the International Olive Council (IOC) which tests olive oil panels around the world, making them compete for the right to be able to confer this make-or-break status. An olive oil can be classed as extra virgin not just as a result of how it is produced agriculturally (unrefined, with less than 1% oleic acid content), but also because of how it tastes. Langstaff’s panel is there to ensure that producers are not getting away with secretly blending oils or cutting corners in their production that might have invited impurities into the end product. The stakes are high: an oil not passing the mark can tank an entire season’s harvest for a producer.
In college Lyndsey Shackleton was in the dairy evaluation club, which meant that while some of her classmates were waking up early to go to soccer practice, she was joining a group of flavour nerds who woke up and tasted different butters. She ended up competing at the Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest in Chicago, where students see how closely they match up to experts in their ability to evaluate, for example, the exact percentage of fat in a sample of buttermilk. Today Shackleton is the lead scientist for Vivanda, a tech company that is using the historical data from over a century of sensory panels at McCormick, one of the largest food conglomerates in the world (it controls 22% of the world’s spice market, as well as owning brands like French’s mustard), to create a big data flavour prediction algorithm. Think Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’, but for food.
From a tech perspective, the expensive and costly human process of sensory panels is ripe for disruption. ‘It’s wild to me that the sensory guru is the best we have at the moment,’ notes Shackleton. The AI system they have created is sophisticated enough, she tells me, that it can predict what a product would taste like ‘even if someone does not have descriptive sensory data for their product’. A company can use Vivanda’s technology to look at someone’s eating habits and predict foods or products that they don’t usually consume, but that they would probably like. Recipe websites can use it to suggest new recipes to consumers based on what they’ve made in the past, while for R&D teams it can be used to identify specific flavours that might work well in a dish when they want to push it in a new direction (cumin on pizza, anyone?).
But while Vivanda’s process remains predictive, Aromyx, a Silicon Valley start-up, is trying to create a system that would tell you exactly what flavours exist within a given product. According to Josh Silverman, the CEO, flavour is no different to any other sense; it is just orders of magnitude more complex. Where our eyes have three receptors that can detect millions of shades of colour, our noses have 400. For him, it is not that flavour exists on some inscrutable nexus of memory, subjectivity, culture and biology – it is just a big data problem that we haven’t historically had the technology to solve. He’s now trying to clone the genes from those 400 olfactory receptors to create a biotech solution that will convert flavours into numbers.
‘Once you figured out the three colour sensors, red, blue and green, you could then build colour spectrums like Pantone and create any colour that could possibly be perceived,’ he told me over Zoom from his office in Silicon Valley. ‘Flavour is more complex, but it operates on the same principle – instead of mapping the three-dimensional space of colour, we’re having to work in the twelve-dimensional space of flavour.’ Instead of trying to get ten people together to agree exactly how ‘hoppy’ or ‘malty’ a beer is, his sensors will show exactly which receptors are firing at any given moment, and thus tell you exactly what the flavour of the beer is. This could be a boon for producers, as it would significantly streamline the process of bringing a product to market. If consumer testing proved that a particular flavour was more popular, the producer could find ways to tweak their recipe to precisely hit the notes that people were looking for.
People debate over whether our ability to perceive flavour is its own sense, like smell, sight, touch and taste, or whether it’s a perceptual system that combines all those senses with harder-to-quantify aspects like memory and culture. ‘Even if you do manage to map the twelve-dimensional space of flavour,’ says Dr Johnny Drain, who holds a PhD in material sciences from Oxford and consults some of the top restaurants in the world, ‘I think that space is pallid without the subjective layer.’
‘We still understand so little about the brain and exactly what is happening when we taste something,’ he continues, ‘that perhaps in a hundred years we will have a company called Neuromyx rather than Aromyx.’ Flavour, perhaps, is too abstract, and encompasses too many of our senses, to be easily captured. It might require something more substantial, like a better understanding of how our mind works, to get close to its digital approximation.
Until then, I still get excited by the idea of panels of people sitting in rooms, looking each other in the eye and trying to figure out what exactly the other person is experiencing. I will never know if you are also tasting a hint of blackberry in this coffee, but I am delighted by the fungibility of language as we grope around for something we can agree on. Until someone finds a way of nailing it down and cementing it in code, flavour remains one of the only ephemeral things in the digital age.
Barclay Bram is a writer based in London. You can find more of his work at http://www.barclaybram.com/
Michelle Wong is an illustrator and designer based in London. Previous clients include BBC, gal-dem and Shado Magazine. Her work focuses on narrative, identity and politics. You can find her on Instagram @michelle.cywong
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for proof reading and additional edits.