Virtual reality (VR) may help horticultural product flavor panelists describe taste more accurately by providing important visual cues. The Business Unit Greenhouse Horticulture of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) is investigating VR to hold more accurate sensory panels from home. Researchers found that flavor is most accurately described in a test supermarket setting, which can be recreated using simple VR glasses and a smartphone.
Many growers and breeders have their products tested by the flavor panel to come up with a wide variety of distinguishing qualities, such as juiciness or firmness.
Highly trained panel members can identify and describe the different flavor attributes in products. But flavor is more than just taste and smell, setting also plays a role in perception.
This is why a small test room supermarket has been recreated in the WUR building in Bleiswijk, the Netherlands so that a visual assessment can be carried out.
Finding alternatives in a crisis
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many flavor panel activities can no longer physically take place at the Bleiswijk location.
Last year, sensory panel trainings were conducted online. Panelists picked up a package of products half an hour before the training, and were trained online how to accurately describe their flavor experience. The online sensory training was held on apples, carrots and beetroot. However, the missing visual component was a challenge.
Using VR, this test supermarket could be visited again from panelists’ homes. The VR glasses resemble small reading glasses that can be attached to a smartphone and held up to the viewer’s eyes. This way, a photo of the WUR supermarket can then be viewed in 360°.
In search of solutions, WUR tried several of alternatives: VR glasses, a questionnaire with photos of the samples and a short visit to the test supermarket, followed by an assessment at home.
Products were collected by the panel members from the WUR building in Bleiswijk and then assessed at home. Researchers found flavor panelists’ scores with the VR glasses were similar to scores in the “old model” pre-pandemic.
More to explore with VR
In the coming year, WUR will further investigate how VR glasses can be used as effectively as possible for visual research on fruit and vegetables. Along with trained sensory panels, the method could show promise for consumer research and focus groups from home.
Earlier this year, Campden BRI simulated supermarkets with VR to better understand which on-pack sensory claims motivate consumers to purchase products.
Last March, VR was also explored for online grocery shopping in Whole Foods to give consumers a familiar feeling of “walking down aisles” from their homes.
Edited by Missy Green
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