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Julia Cohen and Susan Macisaac

Objective observations of taste: exploring the agricultural applications of the sensory science

During the webinar, the agricultural applications of sensory science in fresh produce were discussed. Julia Cohen, Head of Product & Portfolio Strategy at Bowery, opened the webinar with a short introduction on the company. The company has three farms located across the USA. “We are planning on scaling across the country and around the globe”, Cohen noted. Bowery uses a system that allows them to precisely control variables that are critical to growth so that plants receive the right balance of nutrients like light, oxygen, etc. The company aims to continue to scale its operations by leveraging the years of data gathered.  

"You can really start to see the differences between smart farming and traditional agriculture. We started valuating things differently, asking questions like: ‘when is the right time to harvest at peak flavor and how do we define peak flavor? Peak flavor, is produce at the best expression of how it should and could be. In order to define what tastes great, flavor perimeters have to be defined. Sensory science is used to unlock this science at scale. The four pillars of flavors for Bowery are aroma, taste, texture, and color”, Cohen summed up.

Bowery's four pillars of flavor

Susan Macisaac, Head of AgScience at Bowery, talked the participants through on how this comes to life in the product development process. “Our mission is to develop food in full color, Macisaac said. Sensory science is a powerful way to choose specific attributes of the products. We developed a standard lexicon, which helps us to communicate and describe the sensory experience in a standard way. It’s a really simple vocabulary that our trained panelists use, which is able to describe this multi-sensory experience. They list the important attributes in each of the dimensions that affect and influence the sensory experience. As well we have references for the intensity of those attributes. This is the foundation for how we gather repeatable and reliable information about the sensory attributes of our products.

Basil is a great example of how we applied this type of approach to our product development. We define the color of the hue chroma, the intensity of our basil that is desirable to our panelists. Similarly, an aroma and taste, we have defined which specific attributes for liking as well as texture. With this understanding of which attributes in our products, the intensity of those attributes that are driving we now turn our attention to the phytochemistry of our products. The phytochemistry is a way to get a deeper understanding of the chemical compounds in our products that are responsible for the sensory experience

The sensory science of basil 

The recognizable aroma of basil is due to hundreds of different types of volatile organic compounds. We ingest those compounds into our nasal passages and that’s what gives us the experience of basil. We are able to use advanced analytical technologies to profile that aroma and understand which compounds and qualities are responsible for the wonderful aroma of basil. With taste, we are able to profile the composition and associate compounds like limonene with the taste experience of basil. Texture is an interesting experience as it’s a combination of how it feels in your mouth, which is influenced by the hairiness of the number of trichomes on the leaf surface and the thickness of the leaf. We are able to measure and quantify those properties in relation to the texture component. Finally, the color, we know that we eat with our eyes first. So understanding at a phytochemical level, what is responsible for that desirable color is the first step in our journey.

With this understanding, our journey to food in full color starts with looking for the right cultivar as there are many choices. In basil e.g., they differ in their leaf shape, size, color and in their sensory properties. So our screening starts by identifying the cultivar that has the sensory properties and the agronomic potential that we are looking for. With the cultivar in hand, we can then take advantage of our controlled environment and the technology we have in our farms. With the Bowery OS, we are able to sense and control all of the important input parameters. From temperature relative, humidity, light, light intensity, color, nutrient composition and irrigation. This is how we can then dial in the color and change the phytochemistry of the plant to create food in full-color.

For more information:
Bowery Farming 
Julia Cohen, Head of Product & Portfolio Strategy 
Susan Macisaac, Head of AgScience