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Coming to our senses on food

Roy Ballam explains why schools should try to emulate industry standards in sensory analysis of food.

The revision of the national curriculum has brought a greater emphasis on product design in food technology. Pupils will have to treat ingredients as a material and use sensory and ingredient analysis to monitor, modify and evaluate final products.

The most important requirement is to assess eating quality. In the food industry this is taken very seriously because the rate of new products failing is high. Consumers' willingness to try the product and carry on buying it is critical to success. They will normally be tempted in the first place by advertising but their decision to rebuy will be based on the eating quality. Years ago simply producing the food was seen as the goal, but nowadays, as in the design and technology Orders, it is quality that counts.

The function of sensory analysis is to determine the sensory qualities of products by scientific means, in the hope of having some confidence in the results. Ultimately in industry it is used to produce the best product possible by giving objective information for use in: * product improvement * quality control * new product development * shelf life studies * sales forecasts.

In the past this type of analysis occurred only sporadically across the country in our schools and was probably badly implemented. This was due to insufficient up-to-date training, absence of industrial perspectives and the lack of emphasis in the technology Order.

Teachers have faced economic and physical constraints, but there have also been popular misconceptions about the types of tests available. When, for instance, is it best to use preference or descriptive tests? In industry preference tests can be carried out by consumers, but descriptive tests usually require trained assessors.

For pupils, studying food sensory analysis is critical, because food is the only material you can eat and pupils must grasp the different methods open to them to evaluate and modify the products they make. It also allows you to develop in them the essential skills of tasting, and extends their vocabulary. At the start preference testing will be the most used. This gauges the likeability of a product. Later with an increased use of vocabulary, descriptive testing should take place.

The latter involves asking pupils to describe food items verbally and does require them to develop a disciplined approach. For example a cheese sample in a preference test may be described as "liked very much", however a descriptive test may conclude "strong salty, nutty, egg taste".

What do pupil develop through sensory analysis?

* evaluation criteria (against a product specification) * motivation * learning basic steps in the methodologies of scientific tests * confidence in their design work * increase in vocabulary Within schools an easy way to start this type of work is to create a sensory analysis box. This holds all the equipment you need. Useful things to include are: lime cordial, plates, napkins, cups and cocktail sticks. The approach I have used is to make it a "grand" affair, pupils see how seriously you take it and act accordingly.

Four basic tests are commonly used in schools. These being the Hedonic Scale (or smiley chart), Preference (Triangle testing), Ranking and Star diagrams. All can be easily implemented into current schemes of work when evaluation takes place. It is a good idea to have pre-printed worksheets for these tests, so that time is not wasted drawing endless result tables.

These investigations form a focused practical task within most design and make assignments and provide real benefits for future design work. Pupils gain experience in setting up taste panels and carry outthe investigations in a more methodical fashion.

Key factors in performing sensory testing are: * maintain a calm atmosphere * remind pupils to look first, smell and finally eat the food * keep food samples small * serve food in identical dishes (otherwise results may be influenced) * lime cordial should be available between tasting to refresh the palate * avoid writing the name of the sample, use a random letter, number of symbol (otherwise results may be influenced).

The new Order clearly states that eating quality testing should be carried out when using food as a material. It aims to encourage schools to look at food more from an industrial basis and emulate manufacturing standards and processes. Sensory analysis brings rigour into the subject because it has a scientific discipline as its background. Food studies in the past have been set in the context of the home, in preparing pupils to become good home makers and be able to cook for themselves (all desirable life skills) but lacked the credibility as an academic discipline. This form of testing helps add weight to the subject.

Assessing eating quality is paramount to the overall production and final realisation of a food product. Without such tests products could be dull, tasteless or even misleading. Industry places great importance on it as it guides development, enhances quality and can indicate possible end sales. In schools it can motivate the unmotivated, bring rigour to design and provide a basic emotion that only food can give, enjoyment.

Bon appetit!

o Pre-printed sheets are available in Food Technology at Work, published by Technopacks, PO Box 216, Epsom, Surrey, KT19 9YH. The Meat and Livestock Commission runs in-service training sessions on sensory analysis every month. Tel: 01908 677577 Roy Ballam teaches food technology at Kemnal Technology College, Sidcup, Kent

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