The Challenges of Pet Food Sensory Testing
Pet Food Testing with Humans
Pet Food Testing with Pets
The world of sensory and consumer testing is constantly changing as we develop creative methods to answer questions about our favorite consumer goods. Typically this is done using consumers or trained taste testers to explain the sensory properties of foods, beverages, and other consumer goods. A new challenge arises when we try to do the same testing with our four-legged friends. Dogs and cats develop preferences for different foods, but cannot tell us what they like and dislike. Product developers strive to develop foods that are nutritious and delicious, but how do they know if the food will be liked? Humans can be used to test pet food, but this may not translate to pet liking. This is where sensory comes in!
Pet Food Testing with Humans
You have likely seen pet food commercials with two pet owners reading off the list of ingredients in their dog’s food. One owner is happy about the quality of the ingredients, while the other becomes hesitant the further down the list they get. This is the kind of information that pet parents can provide during a pet food consumer test. As with human food, owners can be very particular, about the ingredients in their pet’s diet. Consumer testing can be used to analyze these and other opinions about what they are feeding their dogs and cats. In addition to ingredients, pet food manufacturers may want to know what pet owners think about price, packaging, product weight, nutrition, and even the aroma of the food. If you are met with an awful smell every time you open that bag of food, you may be less likely to purchase. For functional foods or treats, like dog treat tooth brushes, manufacturers may want to know how well the product works.
Since dogs and cats can’t tell us what their food tastes like, we use trained descriptive taste testers to do so. These taste testers typically evaluate human food, but are trained to evaluate any consumer item imaginable. The appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture of pet foods and treats can be evaluated to determine their sensory profile and how they differ from other products. Trained panelists taste the food and assign intensity values that let us know how salty, how hard, or how much liver flavor there is in the food. Don’t worry, they spit the food out after they taste it! Although this information does not tell us how much a pet will like the food, it gives us a better understanding of the final product.
Pet Food Testing with Pets
Now let’s get to the cute part! There are a couple of common methods that use dogs and cats to help scientists understand the palatability of pet food and treats. These methods tend to be repeated over several days with the same animals to understand larger trend and control for behaviors like side bias (some animals may always eat from the bowl on the left before the one on the right, for example). If conducted at home, pet owners can also take note of behaviors before, during, and after consumption.
- The One-Bowl Method – This method measures acceptability of the food and simulates the manner in which pets eat food at home. In place of their normal meal, the test food is placed in a dish and served to the pet. The food is weighed, presented to the pet, and re-weighed after consumption. The amount of food consumed is analyzed to determine acceptance. Multiple foods can be tested with the amount of each compared to see if the pet eats more of one than the other or refuses to eat a food or treat. This method cannot determine how much the food is liked or disliked, however.
- The Two-Bowl Method – This method measures preference between two foods or treats. The food is weighed and presented at the same time to the pets. The amount of each food is weighed after consumption to determine if the pet ate more of one than the other. This will show us if one food is preferred over the other, but won’t tell how much the pet likes either food or what about the food is liked or disliked. This test replaces the animal’s normal meal, but may lead to over eating. Over the course of the test, the bowls are presented on both the left and right side in case the pet is side biased.
- Preference Ranking – This is a new method that can compare up to 5 foods or treats in one session and has only been used with dogs. The food is placed in a Kong toy and held to the dog’s nose, one at a time, to introduce them to the food. The Kongs are placed in a randomized order in a straight line away from the dog and the dog is allowed to remove and eat the treats. The food that the dog goes to first is considered their favorite, second their second favorite, and so on. Not all dogs are able to conduct this task and some may not express preference for any of the foods or treats.
Sensory testing on pet foods is beneficial for both pet food producers and our pets. It helps us provide our dogs and cats with tasty food they will be happy to eat. These creative methods employed by sensory scientists are just the beginning of pet food sensory. This field grows and changes as we learn more about our four-legged friends and how to communicate with them. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to taste your pet’s food?
What Can Mérieux NutriSciences do for You?
Our Sensory experts can design and execute sensory and consumer insights testing for you. With three locations in the US and sensory labs in 8 countries globally, Mérieux NutriSciences can meet all of your sensory testing needs.