A World Beyond Product Liking: Putting Sensory and Consumer Research to Work for You.

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Most people in the food industry know what sensory evaluation is – or at least have heard of it, even if they aren’t completely sure what it involves. Something to do with taste tests and finding out if people like our products, right? Absolutely – that’s one, rather useful part. But sensory science and the related field of consumer research has a lot more to offer – things that can make the work you do every day easier, faster, and more productive whether you’re in R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, or other areas.

Sensory Science:

Sensory science involves measuring and analyzing people’s perceptions to products. There are certainly more technical definitions but the basic concept is that we use the highly specialized human brain and the associated senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, etc.) to tell us about products and the consumption experience. Combined with the attitudes, behaviors, and emotions captured by consumer science, you have an extremely powerful tool that can be put to seemingly endless uses:

  • Testing the acceptability of/preference for existing products and new prototypes: this is what most people think of when they think of sensory work. Useful during product development and as confirmation of product quality, it is also a great way for sales and marketing to showcase their products to retailers.
  • Providing diagnostic information on products/prototype formulations: answer questions about new or existing products and receive directional guidance for adjusting prototype formulations. This kind of information makes product development more efficient and reduces time to launch. Examples of questions answered: does this product have enough flavor? Is the aftertaste too strong…and is it the aftertaste or something else that affects how much people like it? What kind of “strawberry” do people want – jammy, candy-like, natural? How is the new liner in our packaging affecting perceptions of the product inside?

This can provide incredibly useful findings. In a test my business conducted on yogurt-covered raisins, we not only provided direction for the addition of new ingredients but also found that the original, beloved product had more yogurt than consumers wanted. The company was ecstatic to learn it could make a well-liked product even better – and save money by reducing the coating at the same time.

  • Assessing product usage/performance: determine whether your product, packaging, or other aspect is performing as expected. Spreadable cream cheese kind of loses its charm if people can’t spread it.
  • Optimizing ingredients/raw materials: assess ingredients/materials sourced from potential new suppliers or reduced cost substitutions. Can your customers tell the difference – and if they can, is it a large enough difference to be meaningful?
  • Benchmarking and category appraisals: compare products to your past formulations, gold standards, and competitors. Are your new formulations moving too far away from what your customers expect? This is also effective for retailers to compare products from different manufacturers when making decisions on products to offer.
  • Determining sensory shelf life: for many products, color changes, off-flavors, off-odors and other attributes are the first indicators of quality issues or defects. Gauging perceptions over time can help ensure your product will be of acceptable quality when the consumer takes it home.
  • Profiling products: describe characteristics, similarities and differences among sets of products using trained panels, informed consumers, and/or rapid profiling techniques. This is a useful means to assess consistency in manufacturing, storage, and transport of your products.
  • Innovations work and concept development: use consumers to investigate new innovations and concepts to provide early-stage guidance to marketers and developers.
  • Uncovering consumer attitudes and behavior: determine how consumers think, feel, act, and experience products and food issues important to them. Can be used to provide direction and understand what issues to pursue as a business strategy (ex: sustainability, genetic modification, natural ingredients, etc.), as well increase brand awareness and loyalty.
  • Lexicon development: generate a common language related to your products for all functional areas within your company to improve communication and efficiencies among business units, customers, and consumers.

As you can see, conducting sensory and consumer research has benefits beyond just determining consumer preferences and can be applied to numerous areas in your business efforts. But doing this kind of work often requires a mix of analysis techniques, sound research principles, knowledge of social psychological and other academic principles, technical science skills, and a strong grasp of statistics – things for which good sensory/consumer researchers are trained. Speak with a sensory professional about your R&D/marketing needs; they will work with you to ensure that your efforts are more effective, efficient, and advantageous.

Rena Shifren, PhD
ProSense Consumer Research Center

Dr. Rena Shifren owns and operates ProSense Consumer Research Center, a full-service sensory and consumer research facility in Tucson, Arizona. She is an unabashed sensory geek with more than two decades of experience in the consumer insights arena and personally manages every project at the ProSense facility.

For more information or questions, email Rena at or call her office at 520-881-0441.

Cactus IFT Presents: Food Evolution Film Screening

Cactus IFT is hosting a film screening of the new Documentary FOOD EVOLUTION. Come join your peers at FilmBar, and enjoy an engaging and educational film, which will be followed by a group discussion and networking. Round up your colleagues, family, and friends and bring them with you to what is sure to be a exciting night out.                                                                 
Delicious tamales and popcorn will be available, and your first drink is ON US!

Click here to RSVP!

From Academy Award® nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy (THE GARDEN, FAME HIGH, OT: OUR TOWN), and narrated by esteemed science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, FOOD EVOLUTION is set amidst a brutally polarized debate marked by fear, distrust, and confustion: the controversy surrounding GMOs and food.

Traveling from Hawaiian papaya groves to banana farms in Uganda to the cornfields of Iowa, FOOD EVOLUTION wrestles with the emotions and the evidence driving on the most heated arguments of our time. 


Farm to Fork: U of A Students Share New Food Safety Technologies

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” – Benjamin Franklin

When Jesse Leal, International Auditor and Trainer Food Defense, AIB International, was asked what he would suggest the No. 1 action be taken to improve the safety of our food supply, he replied, “Education and training.” As Jesse says, “A dog can be trained, but food professionals need to be educated to understand why measures are taken to safeguard our food supply.” This understanding is a critical part of any food defense program.

Along with education, Jesse emphasized the importance of prevention and applauded University of Arizona Food Microbiology students for the technologies they are developing to give food processors the tools to this end. Specifically, students of Sadhana Ravishankar, Ph.D., highlighted the use of essential oils and extracts that can be used as bactericidal washes on fresh greens. These students have also developed organic films that can be incorporated in packaging and/or added to bagged greens to inhibit bacterial growth.

Dr. Ravishankar discussed the findings of her research; for example, that a 3 percent addition of onion powder, turmeric or oregano to ground beef dramatically reduces the formation of heterocyclic amines, HCAs (a class of carcinogenic compounds).

This first Cactus Section IFT regional meeting “in recent memory” in Tucson was an excellent showcase for the technologies that are currently under research and development at U of A. Applause to our U of A students and professors who did a great job last Wednesday! They include:

• Libin Zhu- lab manager and Research Specialist
• Dr. Govindaraj Dev Kumar- Postdoctoral Research Associate
• Kamini Joshi- graduate student (third place poster)
• Monique Torres- graduate student
• Gustavo Pinoargote- graduate student
• Joshua Albertson- graduate student (first place poster)
• Aishwarya Rao- graduate student (second place poster)
• Davyn Louis- undergraduate student
• Stacy Suarez- undergraduate student
• Dr. Sadhana Ravishankar- Associate Professor

Bear Down U of A! Same time next year!

The Cactus IFT Food Safety Event: From Farm to Fork

The Cactus IFT Food Safety Event: From Farm to Fork



The Cactus IFT is having its next meeting at the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, home of the Wildcats. The theme of this event is Food Safety: Farm to Fork. A lab tour and demonstrations of various food safety projects (including produce, meat and aquaculture safety) in Dr. Sadhana Ravishankar’s lab will be conducted. The latest research in food and environmental microbiology will be presented by students through a poster competition.


Quality Control, Quality Assurance, Microbiologists, Ingredient Suppliers, Spice Enthusiasts, Organic Produce Growers, Conventional Produce Growers,  Produce Industry Professionals, Meat industry Professionals, Aquaculture Industry Professionals, Food Testing Laboratories, Lab Equipment Manufacturers, Food Retail/Transport/Processors, Restaurant and Small Business Owners, UA Students and Alumni, ASU Students and Alumni, First Time Tucson Visitors


School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences
University of Arizona
1117 E. Lowell Street Rooms 212 and 214
Tucson, AZ 85721-0090

Opposite the Sixth Street Garage

Sign up now.




4 Promises to IFT Members

Contributor: Tedley Pihl, Cactus Section IFT President

At the 75th annual National IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) meeting in Chicago this last July, IFT President-Elect Dr. Colin Dennis spoke on the Vision, Mission and Strategic Plan of the Institute.   The mission he stated is “To advance the science of food and its application across the global food system”.  Four Strategic Priorities, also known as IFT Promises to its Members, were delineated to achieve this mission.  These four promises are to Develop, Network, Innovate and Advocate.  The Cactus Section of IFT plans to incorporate these promises throughout our activities in the 2015-2016 IFT year.

The promise of Develop is to “Advance and Promote Careers in the Science of Food”.  IFT wishes to support its members and their unique needs throughout their career life cycle.

The IFT Student Association, IFTSA, is an international group of over 2,700 students.  Benefits of being a part of the IFTSA are for example a sense of community, opportunities for scholarships and competitions (College Bowl and Mars New Product Competition), help in finding jobs, and mentorships.  The Cactus Section meeting on October 28th will be hosted by the University of Arizona, College of Ag and Life Sciences Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology in Tucson.  The focus of the meeting will be “Raising the Bar, from the Farmer’s Gate to Consumer’s Plate”.  We will learn about food safety research at the U of A.  A poster session, and tour of the labs will be followed by a presentation by AIB International.

The CFS (Certified Food Scientist) program is the only recognized global certification for food science professionals. Currently, there are eight CFS participants who are Cactus members but we are working to double this number in 2016.  Information on CFS test preparation will be provided on our website

IFT affords safe opportunities to acquire leadership skills through Division and Section and Board leadership.  Cactus IFT is always looking for contributors who wish to expand their leadership skills!  Send us a note @ to learn more about how to expand your public speaking and organizational acumen.

The Network promise strives to offer members a sense of community. New to Arizona?  Trying to penetrate the Arizona food industry market?  Reach out to Cactus and find a sense of place.  September 24th the Cactus Section will be having its third annual “Opportunity Meeting” in Tempe.  This is a fun and free ice-breaker for the upcoming year to learn about what IFT can do for you and your career.  Come and be prepared to make new contacts!  If you can’t make this one, there will be six more meetings throughout the year with networking as a priority at each one.

As scientists, or those involved in the business of science, Innovation is a must.  It’s critical to stay on top of the changing climate of the food industry.  In January, Cactus Section will be meeting in Phoenix to hear from IRI about new product trends in the foods arena.  The focus of the meeting in March (date TBD) in Phoenix will be on the nutraceutical business with two presentations from experts in this industry.

Save the date for April 5, 2016 as the Cactus Section annual Supplier’s Night takes place at the El Zaribah Shrine Auditorium in Phoenix.  Last year there were 100 vendors in attendance sharing information on cutting edge ingredients and resources for Food Science professionals. This free event serves to provide opportunities to build innovation in to your business.

The fourth promise of IFT is to act as an Advocate: “Address Issues and Influence Outcomes”IFT is an “objective voice” in the science of food.  Communicating the facts on controversial issues (for example GMO) can be eased with the use of Food Science Ambassadors @  The National IFT website with tabs such as the Future Food 2050 and the Global Food Traceability Center is rich with support in this area.

National IFT is focused on the four Strategic Priorities to advance food science worldwide.  Your Cactus Section is dedicated to bringing these promises to the local level.  Please join us for our kick-off meeting on Thursday 9/24/2015 5:30 pm at The Watershed in Tempe, AZ and learn more about what how these promises can work for you.

Cactus Section IFT Gives Back to the Community

IFT ST Marys

In addition to being an organization that fosters business relationships and learning opportunities, Cactus Section IFT is an asset to the community. Recently, members of the Section gave back by attending the “Rock n’ Box” volunteer night at the St. Mary’s Food Bank Del Webb Distribution Center.

Before getting to work, members enjoyed a tasty dinner provided by the St. Mary’s CK (Community Kitchen) Catering group–a community resource that provides life skills and food service training for those without employment.

With full bellies, members created an assembly line and began packing emergency food boxes, which included canned goods, toiletries, and other nonperishable items. The team worked so efficiently that the assigned quota–18 pallets of food box–was competed in just a couple hours!

The good deeds of the Section didn’t stop there. President Holly Long also presented a $500 check to St. Mary’s on behalf of Cactus Section IFT. This amount provides 3500 meals to the community.

Thank you to all the members who volunteered their time to make this event a complete success!

– Tedley Pihl, Cactus Section IFT President Elect

A Tomato, My Kingdom for a Tomato


I suspect that I have never gone a day without a tomato of some kind. Life would not be life, as I know it, without tomatoes. If flavor is king, in fact, then I’d venture to say that the king of all that is food must be, that biological marvel of a red fruit that is used like a vegetable, that reminder of summers past, that sphere of sweetness, salt, and savory, that bloody gush of lycopene-colored goodness, that which tastes just as good when warm off the vine as it does in a vegetable salad, which could not be complete without it, that essential component of so many soups, salsas and sauces, the one and only tomato.

Clearly it’s hard for one who’s studied food to not fall in love with the tomato. Had I not studied food science, had I not joined Cactus Section IFT, had I not had my curiosity piqued by trainings on flavor science, and preservation and processing of foods, I could have not ever truly appreciated the taste of a tomato. The reason is its versatility across a wide variety of foods. It’s equally hard to not adore the tomato as a nutritionist. Whenever more tomatoes are around, more people receive their recommended daily servings of fruits, as well as vegetables. They get their vitamin C, they get their potassium, they get lycopene, and a range of other health-promising carotenoids.

Food processing also has nothing on the tomato. No pounding, mashing, pureeing, blending, or heating appears to do it harm. In fact, these all only appear to intensify its flavor, condensing the content of tomato aroma volatiles; simultaneously, they break apart natural binding components to release carotenoids making them more easily absorbed. And because those carotenoids are fat-soluble, any fusion with fats or oils as part of a prepared product only improves a tomato’s nutrition still further.

According to Wayne Bidlack, a professor in the Human Nutrition and Food Science Department at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, CA, the tomato serves as a useful example of how a fresh food can be nutritious, even more nutritious, through food processing. Likewise, processing improves the release and absorption of beta-carotene from carrots, and removes phytate along with bran from grains that improves bioavailability of minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Too often taken for granted are the cases when food processing has actually improved our diets. We, as food scientists and technologists, might do well to remind others of these examples and that, despite a few setbacks and contrary to popular opinion, the food industry has achieved great things.
The food industry only sells products that people want to buy and if it doesn’t sell, it creates something else, Bidlack reminds. Consumer preference does have the power to change food patterns, starting at home but influencing restaurant foods and food processing methods. The low-fat, low-carb, and gluten-free crazes of years past are all products of this ever-changing consumer environment. Food companies are quite conscious of the nutrition they sell, and, for the most part, the quality of our food supply has improved dramatically over the years.

For example, the food industry can be credited for improving the way fresh fruits and vegetables are harvested and transported to market—over days and weeks, some stored in cold rooms to extend its freshness. The processing of foods, Bidlack explains, also increased their shelf life extending outside of their seasonal production. This enabled their distribution over greater distances, decreasing spoilage and lowering prices that allowed lower income populations to access them.

We can also thank the advent of food preservation and processing for giving us tomato flavor anytime and anywhere in a variety of foods for our nutrition and enjoyment. That’s all good news for me given as much as I love tomatoes fresh, in vegetable salads, as tomato sauce on pasta and in pizza, in tomato soup or gazpacho, and as tomato salsa in burritos or with chips.
All of these foods keep my tomato tooth satisfied, along with my sweet, salt, and savory teeth, and as long as portions are controlled can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.

– David Despain, M.Sc., Cactus Section IFT Member at Large

Member Spotlight: Madonna Kash

Madonna Kash, Cactus Section IFT ACF Liaison

Madonna Kash, Cactus Section IFT ACF Liaison

The success of an organization depends on the dedication of its members. Cactus Section IFT has benefited greatly from Madonna Kash’s commitment and leadership. Her experience and knowledge from being an active member of the food science and culinary fields makes her insight invaluable to the Section. Here are some questions we asked her:

How long have you been a member of IFT?

I have been professional member of IFT for three years. 

How did you find out about IFT?

I was introduced to IFT by Lynn Abarr-Boubelik.

Why do you stay involved in IFT?

I enjoy learning about all aspects of the food service industry and working with liked minded individuals. I also enjoy the opportunities to help others and share knowledge.  

What do you do professionally?

Food service marketing, training, and professional development is my best answer for that, yet I’m shaking that up in 2015 by adding event planning back into my portfolio. I have taken over the sales and marketing of a 50 year old entertainment company, which includes catering.  I am also a proctor for the National Restaurant Association for ServSafe.  

How has IFT benefited your career?

The IFT added creditably to my portfolio and affords me opportunities to help others see there’s more to food service beyond a commercial kitchen.  

If you had to choose, what has been your favorite IFT event? Why?

The meeting with John Ruff, Immediate Past President of IFT, would have to be my favorite. I really enjoyed learning about industry trends, functional roles of food science, and what is developing today to better tomorrow.  

Do you enjoy any hobbies? If so, what?

Learning.  I love learning about food, food service, and sustainability. I also love connecting people with information for community development.   

What would you eat for your last meal?

I would eat any vegetarian or vegan meal made by Chef Bernard Guillas while dinning at the Marine Room. The meal would include: DIY; roasted mixed beets with olive oil and rosemary; Brussels sprouts with lemon butter, toasted almonds, and parmesan cheese; and roasted fingerling potatoes with white pearl onions. My beverage of choice would be a nice red wine such as a shiraz with the meal. For dessert, I’d have Leonidas Pralines with a Nutty Irishman cordial.  

Give Networking A Chance

Embrace the power of networking.

Embrace the power of networking.

To some, the thought of entering a room filled with strangers all with an eager intent to shake hands and exchange business cards can be daunting. The intimidating atmosphere can make you feel uneasy, unworthy, and unknowledgeable.

For these reasons, many people avoid the opportunity to network with professionals in their fields. Donna Cook is a published author who has expressed her hesitation to engage in networking in a recent article on her blog titled, “Why Networking is Not the Dirty Word I Thought it Was.” (Visit Donna Cook’s blog at or read her book, Gift of the Phoenix.)

She describes her preconceived notion of what a networking event would entail: “I envisioned a bunch of well-dressed folks whipping out their business cards with a suave smile. I imagined a flow of conversation that persuaded everyone listening [to] ‘Do business with ME.’ It seemed exactly the sort of slick, conniving environment in which I would be doomed to fail.”

Although reluctant, she decided to attend an event for the Idaho Writer’s Guild—an organization that would help support her latest journalism endeavor. With flashbacks to her “I’m-the-new-kid-in-school-and-don’t-know-where-to-sit-in-the-cafeteria” days, she bee-lined to an open seat and sunk into her chair.

Slowly, she opened herself up to those sitting around her and became pleasantly surprised at the commonalities she shared with them. As Cook put it, they all “spoke the same language.”  She was intrigued by their personal stories and inspired by their accomplishments. In fact, she was so moved by the people she met, she decided to join the club and has been a member ever since.

Cook professes the professional benefits of networking, but believes the personal friendships are what keep her coming back for more. “…I love the group. I love the people in it. I love being a part of it,” she concludes in her article.

Similar to Cook’s realization, Cactus Section IFT offers a unique opportunity to meet people who have similar interests in food science. One of the purposes of the section is to provide an opportunity to network regarding professional goals as well as to build lasting relationships outside of the section. At Cactus Section IFT, it’s more than networking; it’s about connecting.

– Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RD, Cactus Section IFT member


Member Spotlight: Holly Long


Holly Long

This year would not have been successful without the hard work and dedication of the Cactus Section IFT Chair, Holly Long. Holly has spent hours scheduling events and organizing meetings.

Here are some questions we asked her:

When did you join IFT?

I first joined IFT as a student at the University of Arizona in the late 1980s. I returned to Arizona 6 years ago and I have been actively involved in the Cactus Section IFT for 4 years. I came to an open board meeting just to see what was going on and left with the job of secretary. That pulled me right in and I have found it very rewarding to be involved.

Can you tell us about your role as the Cactus Section IFT Chair?

Being Chair has been a challenge for me and I still have much to learn! At the same time, I have truly benefited from the training offered by IFT and have been able to sharpen my leadership skills. One of the best things for me has been developing friendships. I have also enjoyed working with volunteers and feeling such a great sense of appreciation for their help in seeing things through. As Chair, I have enjoyed seeing events come together, getting to know more of the members, and working on building my own skill sets. I am grateful for the opportunity!

What do you do professionally?

I have been involved in the nutritional supplement industry for over 20 years. I started out as a new graduate with a Master’s in Food Science from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. At that time, the nutritional supplement industry was not seen as a valid industry by the scientific community in general. Being involved in IFT helped me stay in touch with the science community. Over time more and more scientists became involved in the nutritional supplement industry and now there are many at any given event. It has been a wonderful change for our industry. Six years ago, I shifted focus in my career and am now involved in the business side of the industry managing a web fulfillment group. Being involved with IFT helps me keep in touch with the science that I love and meet other great professionals.

Why do you stay involved in IFT?

Among other reasons mentioned, one of my main reasons for staying involved is a love of science and learning. My favorite events are those where we learn together from great presenters and/or industry tours.

If you had to choose, what has been your favorite IFT event? Why?

One of my favorite IFT events in the last few years was a presentation on food safety and recall processes. It was unrelated to my current position, but the speaker knew the material well and taught and entertained us at the same time. A good teacher can always engage an audience!

Do you enjoy any hobbies? If so, what?

My husband and I enjoy working together on self sufficiency activities that could be loosely grouped under the idea of an urban farm. I enjoy having fruit trees, gardening, and cooking with my sun oven. The empowerment I felt when I cooked my first meal in the sun oven is hard to describe.

What would you eat for your last meal?

I love many kinds of food and my favorites change often. I have a recipe called “Tomoatoey Chickpeas” that comes to mind at this moment. It’s garbanzo beans flavored with Indian spices over rice. Pot stickers sounds good today too. And then a rich decadent dessert, perhaps.