I remember when I participated in my first Sensory Team tasting at MMR. It was a large set of orange juice samples, and I was trying to describe what they tasted like to me. I started by saying: “it tastes like when you bite into the green skin of an orange!”
Everybody in the team looked at me strangely. For a few seconds, I completely forgot that I only considered my own personal frame of reference for oranges, my Brazilian background. Oranges that I ate during the first 25 years of my life looked quite different from the beautiful and perfectly orange skinned fruit commonly found in the US. Brazilian oranges taste similar, but look different with green colored skin. They are called “Laranja,” which means orange in Portuguese – both the fruit and the color of a carrot.
This situation reminded me of the need and importance of reference standards to achieve concept alignment between panelists during their training and calibration. Besides the fact that “Reference day” gives the Sensory Panel (and the Panel Assistant) a great deal of fun, the use of references plays a key role in developing the terminology to be used during the assessment of a product. Any chemical, spice, or product that our imagination can identify as a potential reference can help our trained panel to identify and quantify the same attribute in the sample being tested. Therefore, this makes the panel highly reproducible and able to more accurately discriminate multiple attributes among samples.
In short, the contact with references is the key to allow a Sensory Panel to use a standard language to describe their perceptions over a product. For this reason, while life gives you oranges, Sensory Panel training will give you “citrus aroma”, “overripe orange”, “cooked orange”, “candy orange,” and “orange pith.” About that green note I was trying to refer in my tasting? Well, the trained panel called it “orange zest” and a good reference for it is the fresh grated orange skin.
In the picture, you can see an example of a set of references prepared for a training day with our Pleasantville Sensory Panel - clearly, not for orange juice!
Kezia da Cruz is Sensory Panel Assistant for MMR in Pleasantville, USA.