The science and engineering that it takes to get food onto the shelves of your local grocery store is expansive and diverse. One little known field is called “sensory science,” in which scientists conduct tests to ensure the quality and integrity of the food products being manufactured.
Image by Science Photo (Shutterstock).
I’ve never heard the term “sensory scientist” before and was curious what it might mean. To learn the basics of the field, we spoke with Michael Nestrud, who has a Ph.D. in food science and works with Ocean Spray.
Tell us about your current position and how long you’ve been at it.
My name is Michael Nestrud and I’m the manager of Global Sensory Science at Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. I’ve been at Ocean Spray for 25 months.
First of all, what is a “sensory scientist”? I imagine a lot of your work is dedicated to ensuring food quality control on a broad level, is that right?
Mostly we run taste tastes, but it isn’t quite so simple. Broadly yes, your statement is correct. In the context of a food company, quality refers to ensuring integrity during the manufacturing of current products, which my team supports. For this role we travel around to our beverage and food plants and teach our partners how to taste products to ensure they are produced to our high quality standards.
The other main role is related to new products. We also run tests in the U.S. and around the world for products that are under development. Whether we’re creating line extensions or new products, the consumer is involved early and often. Through lengthy taste tests and questionnaires with tens or hundreds of people, and either at central facilities or in peoples’ homes, we are the communication interface between consumers and our product developers and marketers.
At a very specific level, the toolkit of sensory science is “the scientific methods used to evoke, measure, analyse, and interpret those responses to products as perceived through the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.”
What drove you to choose your career path?
I always have enjoyed cooking and I have a strong technical bent, and both greatly support what I do now. When I was in high school I ran a 2-line BBS system out of my bedroom while simultaneously creating elaborate meals for family and friends. At that time, I didn’t know that food science existed, much less sensory science, so it seemed logical to study CS. Two years into that degree I learned of food science, became fascinated, and jumped ship. The idea of being able to create delightful culinary experiences for thousands or millions of people was too much to resist.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I have an Associate’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Culinary Arts, and a B.S. and Ph.D. in food science from Cornell University, with a concentration in sensory science. After Cornell, I had a short postdoc at the U.S. Army Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center, where I applied my Ph.D. work to develop warfighter field ration menus (MREs™) with higher acceptability.
There are many paths to becoming a sensory scientist — the culinary degree is non-traditional for the field, although it obviously has benefits when working with food products all day. Most people follow a somewhat similar food or biological science B.S. plus either an M.S. or Ph.D. in sensory science to get into the field; that said I have a Ph.D. level behavioural neuroscientist on my team as well as a B.S. level nutritionist. If you can follow the scientific method, understand statistics and the design of experiments, multitask and have the ability to learn quickly on the job, then you could have a role on a sensory science team.
Did you need any licenses or certifications?
You don’t, but if you do not have a traditional sensory science background and don’t have an advanced degree, there’s a very well respected continuing education course at U.C. Davis that many go through (and food companies often sponsor the fee). About half of workers in the field have this type of non-traditional background, whether it’s a certificate or just learning on-the-job.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
I spend the majority of my time partnering with other parts of the business (product development, marketing, and consumer insights) to understand their questions and challenges and use that information to design the appropriate taste tests or series of taste tests to bring a new product, or product reformulation, to market. After a given taste test is finished, we meet with that same group to ensure they understand the results and implications for the project going forward. This is a very iterative process between product developers, marketers and consumers where hundreds of prototypes may be developed, 15 or 20 versions are put through taste tests, tweaked and retested with consumers prior to one formula being launched.
As a manager, I also spend a significant amount of time mentoring my team, which is something that is really important to me.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
I think people misunderstand the level of science needed to run best in class taste tests. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and it can have huge implications for the business. Sometimes, those restaurant tabletop feedback cards make me cringe with poor question wording or confusing language.
What are your average work hours?
I’m usually here 7:30-5:30 or about ~45-50h a week on a good week. If we have a lot going on it can be more, and if I’m travelling for work I put in long days. The work is rewarding so I don’t dwell on hours too much.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Two things. The first is that I am a strong believer in using technology to deliver faster and better insights. For example, we use a cloud-based technology for running our surveys, which allows us to watch results come in live from around the globe from any web browser, as well as get a jump start on the analysis. This is opposed to the old paper-survey based methods or a direction-connection client-server model, which doesn’t easily scale. The second and perhaps more important thing is that empathy is critical for what we do. Empathy with our business partners, empathy with my team and most importantly empathy with our consumers. I constantly strive to understand why they do or don’t like a given formulation and what we can do better for them.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I’m flexible with the scientifically designed “best practices” as long as everyone is aligned with the implications. There’s an art to conducting statistically valid tests in a corporate environment constrained by cost, money, and people resources. In that constrained space is where beautiful and elegant solutions can emerge. I’m not going to imply that the rest of the field does not run great tests, but I do know that some scientists can be very inflexible, or alternatively break the rules without fully understanding or explaining how it impacts their results. Both carry huge risk.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Businesses want certainty and the language of sensory science is statistics and probability. Bridging that gap can be difficult at times. I spend a lot of time 1:1 with cross functional team members building trust and explaining what things mean.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
Working with the people — our grower-owners, our employees, and our consumers. I’ve met hundreds of our grower-owners and knowing that we’re creating a livelihood for generations (5th and 6th generation cranberry growers, for example) is very rewarding to me. My team is full of amazing people, and finally, last year, we helped deliver over 4 billion delightful consumer experiences around the globe. Knowing I’m having that sort of positive impact really connects me to the same delight I got back in high school cooking dinner parties, except now the impact has grown beyond the dinner table.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services? Pretty niche service, I suppose!
I don’t consult anymore, but if you are in need of a sensory scientist on an ad-hoc basis there are plenty of consulting firms out there. You can check out two industry trade groups — the Society of Sensory Professionals and the Sensory and Consumer Sciences division of the Institute of Food Technologists as a good place to start. Really anyone interested in learning more about the field should check out those resources.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
The Institute of Food Technologists published a Food Science salary survey in 2013. Based on their survey, the median salary for a Sensory Evaluation Specialist is roughly $US76,000. You can imagine that education and experience can shift you down or up from there as well as cost of living differences depending on the local climate. I will add that it is a very understaffed field; it is hard to find good people (this is true of food science in general). With a few exceptions, the hiring climate fared pretty well during the recent downturn. If you have the skillset and are willing to move to where the jobs are, there’s always more demand than supply.
How do you “move up” in your field?
Deliver excellent results and do it in a professional manner — having good people skills is as important as delivering sound science. Being a good collaborator is more important than getting your way and leaving everyone in the dust (and most often delivers better outcomes). Always be looking for better ways to do things and communicate the link of your work to high level strategy. As a manager, my focus has shifted from my own success to how can help my team develop into successful sensory scientists and contribute at a high level.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
People underestimate the complexity of designing, executing, and analysing a sensory test and, if you’re not careful, overestimating the reach of the results to fit specific agendas.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
We’re a relatively small field and everyone knows everyone just about — take advantage of this. Build your professional network while you’re in school, go to and present at conferences, talk to experts about what they do, get internships and/or shadow people in different types of roles (government, academia, industry) and never stop staying on top of the science. Get involved with one or both of the previously mentioned sensory societies. If you’re still in school, then grad school is a must if you want to start out as a scientist, and you don’t have to have a food science degree to get into a program.