food evaluation: sensory criteria

All non-personal information and quotes in this post come from Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (fourth edition) by Amy Brown (chapter 1, pages 1-5). I have substantially modified wording and pulled out important concepts. If you, blog audience of currently 0, notice a problem with my citation form, please let me know.

People evaluate food based on many, many criteria. Some of the most basic come from sensory data: how does this look, smell, taste, sound, and feel? Other things that can influence your decisions about specific foods are your memories, religion, culture, health, emotional state, wallet, and especially who you’re with (or not with).

Sensory data happens to be the easiest thing for marketers, food scientists, and chefs to manipulate, so this is where the study of food science starts: with a description of what each sense can measure. In deference to logic, I shall follow in part my textbook’s order of presentation: sight is usually the first introduction we have to a specific food. Grocery stores and the best restaurants have figured this out: I don’t even really like the taste of Lucky Charms, but I simply cannot walk by a box without craving it. And don’t even get me started on the Golden Arches. Sound may be presented at the same time as sight or anywhere throughout the continuum of introduction to swallowing, and is also a regrettably delectable byproduct of frying. The quintessential example of this category is the ‘snap crackle pop’ of Rice Crispies. Oh, how I crave thee now, sweet marshmallowy delicacy. Add to the list of things not to do when hungry: write about food.

Right up there with sound and sight in information we receive early about a food is its smell. (Trivia: Normal people can distinguish “2,000 to 4,000” different scents, while “some highly trained individuals can distinguish as many as 10,000.” Which, btw, would get major bragging rights in my book. Opera singer status.) They get you here with the fries. Have you ever walked by a pizza parlor or a teriyaki stand? You know it’s a bad idea. You know something that smells that good cannot possibly taste that good. It doesn’t matter. You are now inexorably, exhaustively hungry and the thought of your healthy carrot stick snack waiting at work simply does not cut it.

The next thing I notice is touch, how a food feels in the hands or the mouth or on the utensil. Depending on how hot that soup is, I may never even get to taste. Some interesting components of this category are astringency (the pucker reaction) and chemethesis (the reason we think of habaneros as hot and cucumbers as cool), which both seem more like flavour components than touch to me. But also in this category are the normal touch sensations of consistency, tenderness and texture. As all the good descriptor words were taken by the textbook, come to your own understanding about the difference between these two qualifications.

Last but greatest, taste. Foodie scientists have pulled out this category by subtracting smell from flavour in a 75:25 proportion and calling the remaining sense taste. Thus this sensation relies solely on your tastebuds and their chemical performance. We humans distinguish five specific tastes, dear imaginary blog reader: sour, salt, sweet, bitter, and umami (savoury). I had major umami for dinner tonight (which is a glaring misuse of the word, but it’s a little late for the rational editor to take over.)

Hope you enjoyed the first installment! Do not expect them all to be this long and detailed.


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