Instead of studying drugs or biology, this sensory scientist analyses chicken nuggets, plant-based patties and even coffee, to find out why you love the food you love. Loo Ying Yan identifies the X-factor in the food that gets you hooked.
She spends her day tasting food, watching others enjoy their food and thinking about food. From cheese and chips to soda and patties, Loo Ying Yan is obsessed with it all.
How would she describe a bottle of orange soda? Some might use words like “citrusy” or “refreshing”. For Loo, the experience goes way beyond that. She is looking for nuances such as woodiness, oiliness (the oil being released when you stick your thumb into a freshly peeled orange) and aldehydic (the peely notes that come from the white part of the orange).
No, Loo is not a food critic, food editor or a chef. The 37-year-old is, in fact, a scientist. For the past 15 years, Loo has been a sensory scientist at Kerry, a food company that conducts studies and experiments to improve the taste and nutrition of food.
If you have a soft spot for a particular brand of potato chips, or an undying loyalty for a particular brand of soda, you probably have someone like Loo to thank for it.
A large part of Loo’s job involves identifying the X-factor in food products that gets you hooked. With the information she gathers, she helps food scientists create new launches and line extensions, as well as modify existing products so that they are healthier and tastier.
FINDING THE SIZZLE
When most people think of a scientist, they might imagine someone working with pharmaceutical drugs or DNA, for instance. “Dissecting” nuggets and orange soda hardly comes to mind.
Before joining the industry, Loo herself did not know sensory science existed. She stumbled into it.
Having failed to get into medical school, she chanced upon food science and decided to pursue it at the National University of Singapore. Then, while applying for an internship with a company, she was assigned to the sensory department. That was how she began her 15-year-long career.
Thinking back, Loo realises that she always had an interest and heightened sensitivity towards food.
“My grandmother used to prepare soups for us and in my teenage years, whenever my grandmother forgot certain ingredients such as cuttlefish, tomatoes or onions, I would be the only one to notice.
“My mother was always impressed with my observations and that probably became a part of my identity that I embraced while growing up,” she said.
As a sensory scientist however, Loo’s role goes far beyond tasting food. “Sensory science navigates the intricacies of human interaction with food. A sensory scientist investigates how the properties of food are perceived by people,” said Loo.
This is not as straightforward as simply getting consumers to try products and give their feedback. “One of the problems is that while consumers can tell you whether or not they like a product, they are usually unable to articulate why,” she explained.
That is why Loo also works with a group of highly-trained panellists to identify the characteristics of each food item in a food profiling test.
Before this test can even begin, she breaks down the complexity of a product like coffee into as many as 20 individual descriptors, such as “roasted”, “beany” or “earthiness”. She then trains panellists to identify these nuances so that they can describe the products they are tasting and rate their intensities.
Before I got into this industry, I didn’t know that sensory scientists existed and couldn’t imagine someone making a career out of it. I’m glad I stumbled onto such a cool job.
It doesn’t stop at tasting notes. Loo also analyses the texture of products such as in plant-based patties. “When trying to create plant-based patties that taste like meat patties, we also need to ensure the texture is right; it is not too dry, crumbly, chewy, mushy or soft,” she said.
She even looks at sensory touch points such as how the patties cook.
“One of the things we learned is that certain cues such as the sizzle of the pan is inherently associated with cooking meat patties. This happens when water content leeches out of the patty during the cooking process and interacts with the oil in the pan.
“This is sometimes missing in some of the plant-based patties and is an important touch point that we consider when designing plant-based patties,” she explained.
SHAPING THE WAY WE EAT
These studies help food scientists formulate food that we love, as well as modify our favourite products so that they are healthier but just as tasty. Multinational companies also rely on such insights to launch products across the globe.
She also contributes to sustainable eating by investigating plant-based patties as an alternative to meat-based patties, and helps to create healthier products with less salt and sugar.
“Although most people tell you that they want to be healthy and prefer something less sweet, the reality is that sugar is a driver of liking. I am guilty of that as well. When you put two bottles of beverages in front of me on a hot day, I find myself reaching out for the product that is sweeter because it is more refreshing,” she said.
“We want to help companies reduce sugar usage without compromising on the taste,” she added, sharing that Kerry has proprietary solutions derived from natural plant sources that can replace sugar, and reduce sugar usage in beverages by up to 30 per cent sugar while maintaining a similar sweetness level and taste profile.
“Salt reduction is a little trickier,” she added. “It is difficult to replace salt with a single ingredient so the food scientists need to rebalance the entire profile of the product,” she explained.
In this case, Loo’s job is to organise tests that explore how perceptible the difference in taste of the new low-salt product is, as compared with the original product, and ensure that it is well accepted by consumers.
UNLOCKING EMOTIONS WITH FOOD
Sensory science may be a science, but there is also a huge social and emotional element involved. “Food is personal because it is something we grew up with. It is one of our first few interactions with the world,” reflected Loo.
That is why you notice strong differences in different cultures. “For example, what does cheese mean to different countries? Westerners tend to think of stronger flavour profiles such as blue cheese, mature cheese, parmesan, brie and gruyere, which they grew up with. In Asia, we tend to prefer milder cheeses such as mild cheddar, mozzarella and gouda,” she said.
Companies planning to launch new products or break into new markets look to sensory scientists such as Loo to recommend the best flavour type and sensory profile for each market.
Our emotional connection to food is what makes sensory science so appealing to Loo. To her, food is associated with comfort, nostalgia and the sense of being taken care of.
“Most of what we describe as taste is actually from our sense of smell. Our sense of smell is intimately linked to our emotional centre and memory centre. So it’s not surprising that food tends to trigger a very intimate response from us and evokes certain memories,” she said.
“For instance, I love coffee. Coffee doesn’t really do anything for me physiologically. But my grandparents used to own a coffee shop and I remember waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee every morning.
“When I was studying for my examinations back in my university days, I would always brew a pot of coffee. Although I’d still fall asleep after drinking it, the smell of it gave me a sense of comfort,” she said.
“Ever since I got married two years ago, to me, food also tends to be associated with comfort, and spending time with my husband,” she said.
Loo loves how her job combines her love for science with a very personal experience.
“I have no regrets not being a doctor,” she said. “I love geeking out about the molecular basis of flavour, the physiology of smell and taste, and human psychology. I enjoy sifting through the sea of data to look for trends and insights, and I am also a foodie who loves food.”
“Before I got into this industry, I didn’t know that sensory scientists existed and couldn’t imagine someone making a career out of it. I’m glad I stumbled onto such a cool job,” she added.
“So for others at the start of a career, I’d say it’s not a bad idea to just shop around and do internships that opens you up to a wider range of choices,” she said.
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