three people around a conference table, one has a lab coat on

Sensory Success New Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Laboratory Expands AURI Capabilities

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, in partnership with Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU), the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Legislature recently opened a new Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Laboratory on SMSU’s campus in Marshall, Minn.

The new facility provides food producers with an additional opportunity to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data about the sensory aspects of food — like taste, smell, sight and feel. This is an important step for innovative food businesses as it shows how products could be adjusted to better meet consumer preferences as part of the commercialization process.

Professional sensory evaluations are costly and typically consist of highly trained professionals to tweak certain product characteristics. However, with the opening of this lab, AURI is able to offer beginning food product optimization services to startup businesses at an affordable price point. By using the services and technology at the lab, AURI’s endeavors to help
clients bring more preferred food products to the market faster.

AURI’s clients had been asking for a resource with these capabilities for some time, said Shannon Schlecht, AURI’s executive director. Consumer preference is fickle and hard to predict. But in the competitive food product market, being able to test and measure food to deliver desired characteristics before bringing it to market can be the difference between a product’s success or failure. Receiving unbiased feedback on basic attributes like appearance, aroma, flavor and texture can help food producers eliminate less preferred products or refine and improve their products before they
hit shelves.

“Most facilities focus on very specific attributes with trained panelists, which is a much more expensive endeavor. While this facility could provide that type of feedback as well, the focus will be on more general sensory characteristics to overcome initial
hurdles or concerns around a market launch,”Schlecht said.

The Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Laboratory is state-of-art and will serve a vast array of stakeholders throughout the region. Among them are producers, companies, entrepreneurs and researchers. The lab is a vehicle for exploration to drive innovation through facilitating sensory analysis of food products, advancing both commercial and educational goals.

In addition to sensory characteristic analysis, researchers can use the lab to receive input on packaging, recipe refinement and overall market readiness of food products. Businesses will also be able to take advantage of AURI’s professional approach to test design and results interpretation to answer their critical product questions.

To begin with, lab professionals will recruit food panelists from the SMSU student body and the Marshall area. As the facility evolves and capabilities expand, the lab could bring in more highly trained sensory panelists to provide a more in-depth sensory evaluation capability.

The Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Lab is versatile and well equipped. The facility includes a testing room with nine isolated sensory evaluation booths; a product preparation room to facilitate on-site preparation; a conference room that provides a focus group setting, accommodating up to eight panelists; and it employs digital technology, special lighting and
air pressure systems to remove as much bias as possible to obtain the highest quality evaluations for the facility’s users.

The lab directly supports AURI’s mission of fostering long-term economic benefit for Minnesota through value-added agricultural products and its commitment to developing, maintaining and upgrading its infrastructure and assets. AURI’s clients depend on the organization for cutting-edge resources to help them enter and stay at the forefront of a competitive and evolving market.

The facility also strengthens the collaborative relationship between AURI and SMSU. In addition to serving Minnesota’s food entrepreneurs, this new facility serves as a professional test room for required –coursework in SMSU’s Culinology curriculum.

A unique partnership between AURI and SMSU, and funding from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Legislature, brought the Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Lab to realization. The lab was planned, designed, and funded through collaborative efforts by both organizations. As such, both AURI and SMSU will enjoy joint use of the facility for the benefit of their stakeholders throughout the region. Utilizing existing classroom space for the construction of the facility and existing SMSU food prep areas minimized construction costs.

The lab’s benefits are immediate and long-term to the state’s agricultural community and overall economy, said Lolly Occhino, AURI’s Scientist of Food & Nutrition.

From AURI’s side, the lab provides sensory feedback from general consumers on various products to help accelerate a successful product launch into the market. By using this new center, companies can more quickly find the most desired product selected by the sensory panel to fine tune their launch which minimizes costs of developing other formulations at commercial market scale and more quickly accelerates sales growth with the best possible product introduction to the marketplace.

“Many small food businesses rely on friends and family to provide product feedback and direction for change. This new capability will enable business owners to receive unbiased product feedback, which is especially important while trying to establish a foothold in the marketplace,” said Occhino.

“The impact is to minimize costs to starting businesses with their product introduction and help give them the best opportunity to quickly accelerate sales with more desired products. It will also be a great educational resource for SMSU’s Culinology department,” said Schlecht.

From the SMSU side, the sensory laboratory is a resource for the Culinology students to obtain unbiased feedback on their academic work, on food product evaluations, and for educating their peers on what is desired and not desired. Students in the program will take required coursework in the lab and receive scientific training on practical experience in sensory evaluation. This training will accelerate their understanding of methods to further utilize in obtaining the most palatable, and “market ready” product. The lab will also be a recruitment tool for SMSU and ultimately help draw more students into the field.

Linda Thompson, AURI’s Organization Development Director who is based in Marshall added, “the partnership with SMSU will lead to a stronger food science education program for students in the region.”

Both organizations will use the facility and it will be available for broad use for businesses in the state and across the region for the purposes of education of food scientists and students as well as the development of new food products from crops produced in the region.

To celebrate the grand opening of the lab, AURI co-hosted an open house at the facility in November. Attendees were able to tour the lab’s prep kitchen, booth area and conference room to see firsthand the capabilities, features and uses, visit SMSU’s science and technology building and learn more about the school’s Culinology and Hospitality Management program.

Schlecht said opening the lab took the collaboration of many partners and stakeholders. The end result will bring economic and educational benefits to the region, the industry and the entire state of Minnesota.

“We are excited to open the new Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Laboratory and we are deeply grateful to the Minnesota legislature, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Southwest Minnesota State University for their partnership,”
said Schlecht.

To learn more about the new lab, visit: auri.org/sensorylab or auri.org/about-auri/facilities/food-product-evaluation-and-sensory-lab/

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