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Seek Research Magazine

Senses and sense ability

By Jennifer Tidball

The sensation begins with a blank canvas: A white room. White fluorescent lights. People in whitelab coats. White and clear utensils on a white circular table.

It is around this white circular table that the research magic happens. Coffee becomes "earthy," "savory" and "berry." Essential oils smell "minty," "floral" and "grassy." Pet food looks "oily," "porous" or "fibrous."

The research magic has a more accurate name: sensory analysis. Sensory analysis measures how people react to products and items through the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing.

Through sensory analysis, Kansas State University researchers are trying to answer questions such as: Will children eat a high-protein porridge made of sorghum? How can people improve food safety while they are grocery shopping? Do consumers consider dye color or pattern symmetry when they buy clothing?

"Sensory analysis is a really important field because it helps people improve their lives with better food and better products," said Delores Chambers, professor of food, nutrition, dietetics and health.

For more than 30 years, Kansas State University's Sensory Analysis Center has investigated sensory analysis and worked with companies across the globe. At the Manhattan and Olathe campuses, faculty, students and panelists conduct consulting, education and consumer research on a variety of products and topics: food, beverages, cosmetics, fabrics, packaging, paints, personal care products and fragrances, as well methodologies and food safety.

Kansas State University excels at the research, too. The Journal of Sensory Studies recently named the Sensory Analysis Center the top in the world for sensory analysis research influence.

Even more, the journal ranked three university researchers among 784 individuals worldwide for sensory research influence: Edgar Chambers IV, director of the center and university distinguished professor of food, nutrition, dietetics and health, ranked No. 1; Delores Chambers, co-director of the center, ranked No. 5; and Kadri Koppel, assistant professor of food, nutrition, dietetics and health, ranked No. 40.

The rankings were based on a combination of research articles published and number of citations from 2009 to 2015.

"The rankings and recognition tell us that the work we do is useful to people," Edgar Chambers said. "Our research is used by people every day, which is what we want."

Common Senses

The Sensory Analysis Center conducts more than 50 studies every year. Some studies are industry sponsored work, while other research studies focus on the products that people use every day: coffee, shampoo, soda, cheese, smoky sandwich meat, steaks and pet food.

The center, part of the College of Human Ecology, started at the university's Manhattan campus in 1983 and moved to Ice Hall in the K-State Research Park in 2014. A second location opened at the university's Olathe campus in 2011.

Ice Hall is equipped to handle two areas of research: objective scientific analysis using instrumentation and trained sensory panelists and well as sensory analysis with consumers.

Walking through the building shows the center's dedication to improving the products that we use every day. Textiles from across the globe hang in the hallways. Several kitchens with sinks, refrigerators, ovens and stoves help researchers prepare food for studies. A laboratory room contains instruments that allow researchers to study the chemistry of products.

Throughout the building are white rooms for sensory analysis research. In these white rooms free of visual distractions and competing colors, trained panelists study a product's appearance (Is it grainy or smooth?), fragrance (Does is smell like citrus or spice?), taste (Does it taste smoky or have an ashy aftertaste?) and various other characteristics.

The center's 13 trained panelists have each received more than 120 hours of extensive training on sensory analysis and product evaluation. When needed, the center also brings in consumers to evaluate products.

"Sensory analysis is a tool kit that provides a number of methods to use in product development, quality control or maintenance," Edgar Chambers said.

Beyond sensory analysis, the center also conducts instrumental analysis of products. Koppel's research connects descriptive testing and chemistry. Using a gas chromatograph — an instrument that uses chemistry to separate and analyze compounds in a vapor format — she can measure aromatic compounds of a product, such as coffee or pet food.

"We connect the two sides of research," Koppel said. "We want to figure out the compounds that are causing some of these aromatic sensations that we perceive as human beings. It is often a matter of using both data sets and understanding one through another."

Making cents of sense

Enter industry. Senses make cents for the university and economy, and inudstrial partnerships are  another way the Sensory Analysis Center aims to understand the world around us. The center tries to maintain a healthy balance between research projects and industrial client projects.

"The center serves as a facility where companies can ask for a project to be done," Koppel said. "We can analyze their product, determine their position in the marketplace and compare their product to competitors. Sensory analysis can explain why some products are liked or not liked and what makes a product successful in the marketplace."

That's where the Olathe location fits in. While the Manhattan location performs a mix of research projects and industry projects, the Olathe location in the Kansas City metro area primarily conducts consumer testing funded by industry.

"We are still K-State, but we are K-State with an industry bend," said Marianne Swaney-Stueve, project manager for the Olathe location. "When you partner the center's industry work with its descriptive analysis work, it makes Kansas State University stand out compared to other schools."

Swaney-Stueve studies how to improve methodology so that companies can use test results to make their products better.

"We apply academic tools to industry," said Swaney-Stueve, also a research assistant professor of food, nutrition, dietetics and health. "We work with product developers to help them understand how to structure the best test so that they can use the results to improve their products."

Any successful center project — commercial or research-based — contains the not-so-secret ingredient: collaboration. Internal collaboration throughout Kansas State University and external collaboration with companies and universities around the world help the center reach diverse audiences, Edgar Chambers said.

Through the Sensory Analysis Center, Kansas State University research has reached more than 20 different countries, including the U.S., Columbia, Argentina, Russia, Spain, Estonia, India, Thailand, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt.

The center has had a collaborative facility at Kasetsart University in Bangkok for almost 10 years, Chambers said, and is working to establish one at Miguel Hernandez University in Spain.

"We need collaboration because so many times, we work with international products," he said. "Partnerships help us find the people and resources we need for our studies."

A sense of learning

All of the world is a classroom,  a laboratory and a stage for Kansas State University sensory analysis students. The Sensory Analysis Center emphasizes hands-on learning through a variety of research-based experiences, from consumer projects to international travel to Turkish cooking shows.

At the Manhattan and Olathe campuses, graduate students can perform extensive consumer testing before entering the workforce. Previous students have had internships and jobs with companies such as Coors Brewing Co., S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., Nestle, Mars Inc., Unilever, Nabisco, Avon Products Inc. and PepsiCo Inc.

Approximately 10 graduate students work at the center every semester and help with consumer and descriptive sensory projects. Each semester a graduate student lab manager takes on additional leadership responsibilities by scheduling panelist sessions, coordinating student schedules and keeping supplies stocked and organized.

"K-State has one of the top sensory programs in the country," said Brendan Kelly, master's student in food science and the lab manager for the fall 2015 semester. "For me, it is great to gain such extensive experience in flavor profiling because it will be key for my future career in food chemistry."

For students such as Kelly, these extensive experiences reach across the globe. Delores and Edgar Chambers have led several graduate student research study tours to various countries, including a 10-student trip to Turkey in October 2015 and an eight-student trip to Egypt in January 2016.

In Turkey, students researched eating habits and learned how to translate and conduct research in different languages, Delores Chambers said. The group even appeared on a Turkish cooking show, "Cooking with Oktay Usta."

"The trip really allowed students to visit with families to learn about how they eat, what their homes look like and what their lives are like," said Delores Chambers, who also has taught classes in Thailand. "It is important for our students to have these cultural learning experiences and interactions."

Such international experiences may be far away geographically from the white research rooms of Ice Hall, but the Sensory Analysis Center makes the world seem smaller through its partnerships and research on products that are used around the world every day.

"Our research is diverse, but it affects each of our lives," Edgar Chambers said. "We want to change the world one person at a time."