by Chris Kelly, Founder, AbScent
Q. Welcome, Lauren. I am always pleased to interview people who have something of interest to say to the readers of my blog and Facebook page. I am particularly interested in sensory science because some of what you do for a living is what we, as recovering smell loss patients, are trying to do to help ourselves. Could you start out by describing yourself, your career path and your interest in sensory science?
A. I first got into sensory science when I was working on Golden Wonder Cheesy Wotsits many moons ago, as an analytical chemist. Sensory science is fascinating - it's all about working with people to gain information about the sensory aspects of products. There isn't yet a machine that can look at a product, smell it, taste it, describe the texture... and so, as sensory scientists, we use humans, known as sensory panellists, to create the information for us. But it's not just about food - people use sensory science to gain information about cars (that smell of a new car for example, or the sound of the door shutting), hair products (how silky does your hair feel, does that conditioner really make your hair more shiny?), deodorants (does that deodorant really stop body odour?) and many other products. I guess our job is to make products that delight the consumer and sensory science enables us to do just that.
Q. When I first got into smell training as a patient, I was fascinated to find out that there are labs filled with people who smell things all day long! How do people get into this field, and what is the training like? Did you train yourself intuitively or did you get specific instruction on how to develop your sensory skills?
A. When I'm recruiting for sensory panellists (the people who do the smelling) I am looking for people who have average sensitivity to certain smells. We create various aromas and ask people to smell them and describe what they perceive. For example, if I was recruiting a panel to assess soft drinks we might give the potential panellists fruit aromas. If we were recruiting for a deodorant panel we would give them body odour type smells to assess. If the potential panellists pass the test (are able to describe the aromas) they are then trained to become a sensory panellist. This involves learning how to smell (or taste or assess textures), how to work with others to create a great description of the aroma (or taste...) and to experience a wide range of different products to extend their product experience. This training will take several hours spread over several weeks or even months - it depends on the product types the person will be assessing and the range of the products they will be describing.
Q. How challenging was this? Many people who are starting with smell training get frustrated and give up quickly. From the perspective of someone who uses their senses in their work, how did you approach this long-term commitment to developing your skills?
A. I think the panellists find it very challenging. But also very enjoyable - probably because of the team work aspects and the pride in doing an interesting job very well. Lots of panellists find it fun to describe their job role - it sounds like a dream job to assess chocolate for a living, perhaps less of a dream job to sniff smelly armpits - but still interesting!! It is hard work though and it can be very tiring to assess a large number of products in a day. My job as a sensory scientist is to control the number of samples the sensory panellists are assessing and to check that the assessments are being done correctly. Once a panellist is trained, they become very good at their job and as a sensory scientist I want them to stay in the job as long as possible. Many panellists have said to me things like: "I go round the house smelling things to add to my smell dictionary" or "my other half keeps saying to me - please shut up about the food and just eat it!"]
Q. What was your first experience with someone who had lost their sense of smell? What did you think when you heard that this could happen? Have you encountered anyone in the sensory science field who has had this problem?
A Part of the training to be a sensory scientist includes understanding how the senses work and the differences between people's abilities. In the course of the recruitment of many panellists, I have met a handful of anosmics and several people who had a specific anosmia to certain aromas. I have also met people who have hypoguesia (for example they cannot taste bitter) but not aguesia (total loss of the sense of taste). I think the loss of any one of the senses must be very difficult. As many people do not realise that they cannot taste cheese, chocolate, or chips - and it's not just food items that begin with ch... - we can only taste salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umami (kind of like savoury) - the rest of what we 'taste' is done by the nose - must make it particularly difficult for people with anosmia - people just don't understand when anosmics are missing!
Thanks, Lauren, for this look into sensory science, and what goes into teaching normosmics how to train their sense of smell!