The Language of Flavor

June 24, 2008

7 Min Read
The Language of Flavor

Traveling to a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language can be frustrating. But a bilingual dictionary might prevent a traveler from taking a lot of wrong turns and wasting precious time.

So it is with food. If a product-development team doesn’t understand what its customers and suppliers are saying, they can waste a lot of staff hours and money. Properly developing and using a lexicon can sidestep many potential problems.

Speaking of lexicons

Webster’s defines a “lexicon” as a dictionary, or the vocabulary of a specific language. In the food industry, a lexicon is a sensory dictionary that allows product designers to speak a common language when describing products. Although used primarily for product development, such lexicons are also valuable tools for innovation, quality control, purchasing and marketing.

Sensory lexicons contain food descriptors and definitions. Each definition can include a food or chemical reference—sometimes both—and a scale to measure strength. “The objective of a lexicon is not to determine likes and dislikes, but rather to define what characteristics are in a food and their intensity,” notes MaryAnne Drake, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Food Science, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

How does a food manufacturer go about developing a lexicon? “You have to go through the process,” insists Gail Vance Civille, president, Sensory Spectrum, Inc., Chatham, NJ. This involves gathering samples of the food needing description, such as almonds, cheeses or pizzas. “You have to have sufficient samples to encompass and define the category,” she explains. Then you gather together a group of people, taste the product and agree on descriptive terms. These steps produce a lexicon, or language, of food descriptors the entire group can use with the same level of understanding.

Scope it out

To break this process down into a little more detail, start by defining the project’s scope. A lexicon can be developed for one specific food, such as Brand X Thin-Crust Pepperoni Pizza, or an entire category of foods, such as nuts or cheeses. Some lexicons only deal with flavor and aroma characteristics, while others might include categories for taste, texture and appearance.

“When developing a lexicon for a specific food product, one would start with that food,” notes Lauri Rottmayer, 21st Sensory, Inc., Bartlesville, OK. “For example, when describing a pizza, one would want to include samples of various tomato sauces and pastes, various herbs, garlic, various cheeses and crusts.” The lexicon might include 10 terms to describe the sauce, including “garlic,” “tomato” and “licorice-like;” an additional eight terms to describe the crust, such as “white,” “wheat” and “yeasty;” and seven distinct terms for the cheese component.

By contrast, the Almond Board of California, Modesto, recently commissioned Sensory Spectrum to develop a lexicon for almonds. The process started by randomly analyzing 36 different samples of raw almonds from 20 different almond varieties to develop an initial lexicon. They then focused on some specific samples, and then expanded it to include roasted and pasteurized almonds. The final lexicon included aroma terms such as “dark roast” and “benzaldehyde”; flavor aromatics such as “woody,” “raw” and “coconut/lactone”; and texture terms such as “crunch/snap” and “toothpack.”

According to Drake, the dairy industry has also developed several lexicons, including a broader cheese lexicon and a more-specific lexicon for Cheddar cheese.

Civille is working on a lexicon book or disc that would encompass all foods; currently, most lexicons just cover a specific item or group of items. “One can also think of lexicons as wheels,” she explains. “There is a beer wheel and a wine wheel. Within the wine wheel, there might be a fruity section, which could be further broken down into apples, peaches and pears.”

Or, Civille says, “For the category of brown spices, you could also use the analogy of an apartment building, which would be the first tier. A specific spice, such as cinnamon, like a specific floor in the building, would be the second tier. There would be separate floors for other brown spices, such as cloves and nutmeg. Finally, a specific chemical, hexyl cinnamic aldehyde, akin to John Brown’s apartment #323, would be the third tier. When you’ve mapped out your lexicon to that level of accuracy, you know exactly where you're going.”

Points of reference

After mapping out the project’s scope, the next step is to collect references. A successful lexicon will cover the entire range of characteristics, so it’s important to collect sufficient food samples to cover all attributes that make up the food or category. These become reference points. “For example, when describing a pizza, one would want to include samples of various tomato sauces and pastes, various herbs, garlic, various cheeses and crusts,” says Rottmayer.

When an industry group developed a cheese lexicon, tasters sampled over 200 cheeses to come up with the 40 or 50 used to develop the lexicon. The final lexicon included notes such as “brothy,” which uses Knorr beef-broth cubes as the reference, and “sulfur,” with a reference of boiled, mashed egg. The reference could also be a chemical, as in the case of butyric acid, the reference for “free fatty acid.”

Industry has developed many standard terms, which often are defined by a set solution at a specific calibration. The American Society for Testing Materials, West Conshohocken, PA, has a lexicon that includes terms, definitions, references, examples and a universal scale of 0 to 15. Many sensory companies work with both industry standards and their own internal database.

“There are many nuances in developing a specific lexicon,” comments Nancy Rodriguez, president, Food Marketing Support Services, Inc., Oak Park, IL. General lexicons have limited value. For example the term “dairy complex” is rather nonspecific, but with the terms “lactic acid,” “butyric acid” and “diacetyl,” the food or flavor chemist can go directly to the bench and work on those exact components. “Whenever possible, we anchor our terms to chemicals, because it allows for a higher level of linguistic precision,” she adds.

Scale and training

The next step is to anchor the reference to a point on the scale. For the flavor notes of caramelized tomatoes, Rottmayer used the reference of Hunt’s Diced Tomatoes as 0.0, Prego 100% Traditional Pasta Sauce as 3.5., and Hunt’s Tomato Paste as 10.0. For the “first chew” on pizza, she created separate categories for hardness (incisors) and hardness (molars). For the latter, the references were pound cake, 2.0; Fig Newton 3.0; and Pringles, 7.5. These reference points are usually designated and assigned by a trained panel, working together to identify and agree upon the initial lexicon terms.

Training a panel should take place before the panel attempts to evaluate a specific food. A successful lexicon requires a high degree of sophistication, a goal best achieved by working with a well-trained panel. Generally, more experience results in better data. A panel trained to describe hamburger doesn't necessarily do tomatoes or cheese--each category requires separate training. However, a broad industry panel trained on a wide variety of foods over the years can quickly set standards for a new food item, because many terms will carry over from other foods.

A verbal bridge

The ultimate use of a lexicon is to enable various groups to communicate effectively and precisely about a food or beverage. Flavor chemists typically link lexicons to the associated aroma chemicals. However, gourmet wine tasters might prefer florid terms such as “flabby” or “decadent,” and the average wine consumer might use simpler terms, such as “light” or “crisp.” Winemakers generally use causal words that relate to production, such as “barrelly” to indicate the flavors coming from aging in oak, or “merlot” to describe a particular variety of grape. Think of a lexicon as a sensory dictionary of a product system that helps build a bridge to consumer preference.

Rodriguez adds that sensory analysis is taking place more often in the up-front part of product development to understand consumer drivers such as what constitutes the ideal french fry, the perfect cake mix or the optimum cinnamon bun. These drivers not only relate to the flavor of the cinnamon bun, but also to the ideal height, the flavor release and the color of the crust. A lexicon can also help differentiate a product from the competition.

Once sensory experts have identified factors that stand out in consumers’ minds, the product-development team then has a target. The key is reproducibility and accuracy, which lets designers take sensory data directly to the bench and translate it into a finished product.

Sharon Gerdes writes and consults for various food industry clients, with emphasis in dairy products, baked goods and nutrition specialty items. Her career includes experience as both a food and flavor technologist. She holds a B.S. in Food Science and Nutrition from Kansas State University.


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