The Other Great Straw Debate: What Material Works Best?


August 07, 2019

by Beth Logan and Luisa Brady

With the world ridding itself of plastic drinking straws, we took on the timely task of examining the nuanced sensory impact of using more sustainable drinking straws on the user experience.

The growth of the fast food industry in the 1950’s was a major contributing factor to the spread of plastic straws. Inexpensive to produce and as it turns out, bad for the planet. But with people power now in full swing, plastic straws are now being removed from bars, restaurants and eateries all over the world.

The search is now on for fully sustainable solutions. Companies are actively evaluating various options. Whilst the priority must be about lessening environmental impact, we also think that understanding how different straw materials affect the perceived reality of the drinking experience must also be considered. So much is at stake after all, so it's vital that you know which material is best suited for your brand.

What did we do?

To understand the implications of switching to different materials, we engaged a trained sensory panel to evaluate 5 different straws: metal, wheat, paper, bamboo and plastic. For the test, we used three leading water brands, Poland Spring, Aquafina and Nestle Pure-Life.

First, the panel scored the flavor of the waters to which straws had been soaked in for two hours and then removed to determine if the material of the straws affected the taste of the water without imparting the bias involved in sipping through the straw.

Second, panelists drank through the straws in freshly opened products to identify and score any flavor imparted by the act of sipping through the straw itself.

All samples were stored and served at room temperature.

What did we find out?

Results clearly indicated that plastic straws have little or no impact on the sensory experience of the water. But alternative materials do have an impact that could negatively affect consumer experiences.

In brief, here are some of the things we found.

Wheat straws increased the flavor intensity and longevity of the water taste as a result of a papery, stale off-note. In addition, the wheat straw created a mouth-drying sensation.

Metal straws had little impact on the water samples where the metal straws were soaked in the water. However, when panelists sipped through metal straws, a metallic off-note and bitter taste and aftertaste were detected.

Paper straws, more often than not the ‘go to’ solution in the current rush to ditch the plastic, increased the impact and intensity of the water and imparted a stale and papery note.

Bamboo straws imparted a lingering taste of dry wood and tobacco off-notes as well as a mouth-drying sensation.

Key Implications

For the sake of our planet, it is imperative that food service suppliers and brand owners work together towards more sustainable solutions. But they must also be fully aware of anything that might affect what people love about their favourite beverages.

What we have discovered in this exercise, is that different and more sustainable drinking straw materials do impact the perceived reality of the drinking water experience.

For brands wishing to make the right decision, it’s important to be in command of all the facts. The perceived thirst quenching, mouthfeel, flavour notes, aftertaste and so forth.

Clearly, there are some potentially huge commercial impacts by making the wrong decision.

If you’d like to see the data tables for this study or are interested to understand the impact of different straw materials on your brand, please get in touch with us today.

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