Consumer and sensory science play an integral role in developing new fruit varieties such as the red-fleshed apple.
Consumer science involves understanding consumers
Consumer scientists try to understand consumer behaviour. They identify things like:
- what makes people interested in the products they buy
- whether there is consumer demand for a new product
- which consumers are interested in a new product
- which product attributes are important to consumers
- when and how consumers would use the product.
Read about sensory and consumer scientist Christina Bava.
Consumer research is a collaborative process
Consumer scientists work collaboratively with plant breeders and are often involved in discussions early in the development of a new fruit variety. Their research provides important insights for breeders about the type of consumer that would be interested in their variety and what attributes are important to them.
Consumer scientists use focus group research to get feedback on new product ideas from consumers. It’s an process that happens throughout the development of a new variety, posing different questions at different stages.
Sensory science focuses on taste and texture
Sensory science focuses on consumers’ response to taste and texture attributes of a new product. Once breeders have samples of a new fruit variety, consumer scientists run sensory trials where consumers taste the fruit and compare it to other commercially available samples. They rate taste and texture attributes based on what they like or dislike, and consumer scientists can see how a new variety compares to other fruit on the market.
Selecting panellists for a sensory trial
To select consumers for a trial, the sensory team screens people who regularly eat fruit similar to the variety they’re testing. They select panellists through extensive testing to determine their sensitivity to flavour compounds of interest. Once selected, they’re trained as panellists to work on a variety of sensory trials.
A sensory panel comprises about 10–12 people. If a sufficient number of replicates of each fruit variety are given to each panellist, a group this size should give robust and reliable results.
Consumer and sensory feedback on the red-fleshed apple
Breeding new fruit varieties is a long process. It can take up to 25–30 years from selecting and testing the initialto the launch of a new apple variety on the market. The red-fleshed apple is still being developed. Consumer and sensory research on red-coloured fruit, including kiwifruit and apples, has found that consumers in New Zealand and overseas value and are intrigued by red-coloured flesh.
One important aspect when testing traits of new apple cultivars is of course the taste test. This is very straightforward if the fruit has been developed using traditional breeding techniques. However, in the case of work on breeding a red-fleshed apple, scientists had to clear a lot of regulatory hurdles. These regulations are in place to ensure none of the genetically modified materials can be accidentally released into the environment.
After two years the scientists were unable to get permission to conduct consumer taste and sensory tests in New Zealand. The team had to travel to America where eating fresh genetically modified foods is allowed. Special conditions were applied as to how the apples were moved from the containment facility in Auckland to the airport.
Read these articles for further information about using our senses:
Learn more about the taste testing of the red flesh apples and the current regulatory requirements around research using genetic technologies in this 2019 news article Genetic modification and Auckland’s forbidden fruit.