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Food Tasting, NDAs and Panel Discussions

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Recently I was asked to judge a range of food products from a variety of retailers, and provide honest feedback about them as part of an upcoming awards ceremony.  Owing to an NDA, I can’t discuss specifics, but I can certainly give my personal opinion on the experience without going into details of the awards, the producers involved, or the outcomes of the judging.

To be fair, I have done several different panels under a range of guises over the years, ranging from cider and cheeses to lasagna and muffins, and I have enjoyed them, not only the free food but also the way I have learned about product and food development.  Other panellists have often shared valuable insight as to what their expectations were regarding food and over this has helped my understanding of food as others in the industry cater for higher consumer demands.

Food tasting panels are a brilliant way for those in the industry to get the information they need to improve their products, in a variety of ways, and is not just restricted to taste.

So what criteria are important when assessing a new or revamped food product?

Here is a list of the benchmarks for what I would consider a good product or dish when taking part in a tasting panel that allows for feedback for improvement.

Aroma:

  • How does the product smell?
  • Does it smell like its ingredients?  In other words, if I closed my eyes would I have an idea of the meal in front of me.
  • Does it smell natural or synthesised?
  • Is the smell pleasant?
  • Is the smell overpowering?
  • Does it smell fresh?

Appearance:

  • How does it compare with the illustration on the cover of the packaging?
  • Does the food look attractive?
  • Does the product appear like the meal it is supposed to be?  For example, does it look like a lasagne?
  • Is there an even distribution of the main components of the meal throughout?  For example, in a lasagne, is there enough cheese across the top layer or enough meat throughout the whole dish.
  • Does it look natural or are the colours artificial in appearance?

Texture:

  • Is it too dry/wet/crunchy?
  • Is the consistency suitable for the meal/product that it is?
  • Are there suddenly hard lumps in it, or an unexpected texture?
  • Is it overcooked or undercooked despite following the cooking instructions provided?
  • Do you need a drink with it?
  • Is it a pleasant texture?

Taste:

  • Can you taste all the various components of the meal?
  • Is it a complex or simple flavour selection?
  • What aftertastes are there and are they pleasant?
  • Is the flavour of a certain component overwhelming?
  • Does it taste like what it is supposed to?
  • Is the taste pleasant?

Packaging design – both functionality and attractiveness:

  • Does the picture on the cover accurately represent the product?
  • Does the packaging have an interesting story that accompanies the food?
  • Is all the vital information regarding nutrition and the sourcing of ingredients on the packaging?
  • Is the packaging eye catching?
  • Is the graphic design element professionally executed?
  • Are there helpful serving suggestions on the packaging?
  • How easy to use, eat and serve is the product?
  • Is the packaging functional?  For example, does it store brittle biscuits for more than one use or is it an easy to reseal pack?

Ingredients:

  • How many additives are in the product?
  • Does it contain palm oil?
  • Are the ingredients all listed?
  • Are the main components of the product, particularly meat, sourced appropriately?
  • What is the nutritional information on the product?

Innovation:

  • Is there anything new or creative about this product, its design, ingredients or price?
  • Is there a space for this in the market at the moment?
  • Would I buy this product if it were available?

Value for money:

  • Is the future price indicative of the quality of the food?  As in, if it is cheap is that representative of the quality and does that make it a better product?  Is the price indicative of the quality?
  • Would I purchase it at the price indicated?
  • Would I expect it to be higher/lower quality based on all the above criteria and price?

These may seem obvious but when you consider everything from the packaging to taste of a product as a complete whole, it is easier to understand whether people will pick up your product in the first place, let alone repeatedly buy your product.  The feedback honest consumers give businesses, in a very competitive market, based on the list above, is invaluable in securing a market share.

Consumers are also becoming more aware of the ingredients and are less willing to pay out for additives, and this was confirmed by my participation in panel discussions of each item during the tasting.

The sourcing of meat, and the way in which many companies claim to have sourced Irish meat, is also questioned a lot now by the consumer.  It is more important than ever for businesses to be honest about the origin of their ingredients.

When all these factors are taken into consideration, especially when viewed in terms of their value for money, companies can improve on what they provide the public, and this in turn can give them the competitive edge.