A $2.2 million Food Experience and Sensory Testing Laboratory, funded by Massey University, focuses on consumer and sensory science for food.
Joanne Hort, the Fonterra-Riddet chair in consumer and sensory science, leads the facility and has so far been working with dairy products, meat products and even New Zealand-made gin.
Prof Hort said the reasons why people selected food were complex, which is what they are trying to understand.
“Well food isn’t just food to everybody and one of the other things I’m interested in – while we’re all human beings, we have different experiences and even different physiology and genetics, which really affects our relationship with food.”
She said some people might be happy having an apple for a snack every day, while others would become bored with the same sensory experience daily, and were more engaged with the experience they had when consuming food.
Prof Hort said the research was triggered in part by the vast array of food choice in the Westernised world.
New Zealand products are competing on ever-crowded shelves and against some sophisticated and well-funded competitors, she said.
“There’s a lot more information we want to take into account when making food-choice decisions. The sensory perception is always going to be important – people won’t eat food that doesn’t taste good, but then other factors also come into play, such as the environment they’re in, where the food comes from, the ingredients and how healthy it is.”
Prof Hort’s research team, established last year, has been working on projects for Riddet, the FoodPilot and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. These have involved establishing expert sensory evaluation panels and a consumer database of participants, made up of members of the public.
Other projects included student-led work to examine the impact context had in how people responded to eating snack foods. It achieved this by comparing the experience of eating snack foods in a traditional sensory environment, with a mixed reality environment which provided a virtual experience of their surroundings.
Prof Hort said it was also possible to evaluate perception and how packaging and labelling influenced people’s decisions.