By Michelle Hall
Koushik Adhikari, assistant professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, takes sensory and chemical profiles of different food products and attempts to match them. He is looking to discover what chemicals cause what tastes, smells and textures in food.
He obtains the sensory information from K-State's panel of sensory analysis experts, specially trained workers who smell, touch and taste different products and quantify different flavors, smells and textures. Their work is done at K-State's Sensory Analysis Center.
For chemical analysis, Adhikari turns to a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, pictured at left, which separates different compounds and indicates how much of each compound is in a certain food item. The machine can even scan previous literature for previously shown links between chemicals and smells and tastes.
Adhikari is now studying lactose-free milk to determine whether it is different in smell or taste than regular milk and what compounds might be responsible for any differences. For example, he is looking to see what and how many compounds contribute to what panelists have said is a "cooked" flavor in the lactose-free milk.
Soon a "sniffing port" will be added to the gas chromatograph, which, when it separates a compound, will release it into the air for a sensory analysis panelist to smell.
Companies come to K-State's Sensory Analysis Center to help them create products with the best possible taste, texture and smell. Adhikari said this phenomenon has only been seen in the past decade or so; companies previously only cared that their products met industry and legal standards. Companies are interested in this research to help sell their products, according to Adhikari, because there are so many new products on the market these days and the majority of them will fail.
Recently, Adhikari installed a computerized data collection system for the Sensory Analysis Center, which is used for both contract work and research. He also trains graduate students to work in industry as sensory analysts.
Adhikari is now taking his interest in sensory analysis and chemistry in a slightly different direction and is beginning to look at a link between taste receptors and disease. That is, whether protein profiles in saliva could show more than just whether a person is a "non-taster" or a "super taster." Adhikari is exploring whether these profiles could also include biomarkers for chronic problems such as heart disease and obesity.
He also is beginning to perform sensory analysis experiments on products containing probiotics, or "good" bacteria.
Adhikari teaches the courses Sensory Analysis, Sensory Analysis Applications of Statistics and Science of Food in the College of Human Ecology at K-State.
Since 1983, K-State's Sensory Analysis Center has provided confidential, effective solutions for more than 100 domestic and international companies. The center evaluates foods, beverages, cosmetics, fabrics, packaging, paints, health care products and fragrances using consumer testing and/or descriptive sensory analysis. K-State's sensory analysis team, made of up graduate students, won the 2005 and 2006 international Elaine Skinner Sensory Design Competition, sponsored by Sensory Spectrum.