In a world of fast moving decisions and limited resources, we are often asked to pick one thing over another based on our preference. It is quite common for me to ask my daughter to pick one type of candy to have for dessert. It is quite uncommon for her to say anything other than, “I want both!” Conversely, if I ask her to pick between green beans or zucchini for a side at dinner, she will answer, “I’ll take either.”

As food industry professionals, we may use preference questions to identify a winning formulation or determine which of a number of products to take to market. In this instance, we will use hedonic scales (likability scales) to address multiple aspects of the items like appearance, aroma, flavor, texture, and overall acceptability – and then ask our preference question between two samples. Asking panelists to pick one item over the other seems key for the objective of picking a winning product. But what if the formulations are liked the same by panelists? How would we ever know?

Now let’s say we are developing a private label product to compete with a national brand. The products should be very similar, and my private label will retail at a lower price point. Is it necessary for consumers to choose my private label over the national brand in a preference test? Let’s explore what happens we do not force their choice. Panelists would be presented with two samples (352 and 904) and answer a list of hedonic questions on a variety of product characteristics. We may also add in Just-About-Right scales for a more in-depth look at particular aspects. Since we created our copycat product mirroring the national brand, we should expect to see similar hedonic and JAR results if we did a good job in product matching.

Finally, as the test nears the end we have this as the preference question:

Which of the two samples did you prefer?
352                 904                 No Preference

In this case panelists can either pick the sample they prefer, or they can select “No Preference.” If the hedonic scores are positive, and the panelist picks “No Preference,” we can conclude that either sample would be acceptable. Further, since we are creating a private label that will retail at a lower price point, we know that will work to our advantage. If we would have failed to provide the option of “No Preference” and the panelists had liked the samples equally, they may not take time to select a true winner, giving us a false indication of their true feelings.

As you can see in this example, understanding the ramifications of how a ballot is created is paramount for a strong sensory test. Questions like, “Whether to force a choice?” or, “Do hedonic scores indicate purchase intent?” can create quite a quandary for the inexperienced product developer. Instead, leave those questions to a sensory professional. As a leading global provider of sensory and consumer services, Mérieux NutriSciences’ experts can help you answer these questions to quantify and predict the performance of your products in the marketplace.

Meet the Author

Gillian Dagan, Ph.D, CFS
Research Services Business Development Director, Mérieux NutriSciences

Dr. Dagan joined Mérieux NutriSciences with the mission to grow the Research Services business unit that provides clients with customized research projects like sensory testing and shelf life studies. She previously served as Chief Scientific Officer of ABC Research Laboratories where she developed sensory and quality assurance programs for manufacturing and food service clients.

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