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The Science of Taste

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Picky eaters the world over know that just because something is good for you, doesn’t mean it tastes good. Nutritious foods can only do their job if people consume them, and that’s as true in Beijing, China as it is in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Instead of developing a new nutrition product in one market and rolling it out globally, Abbott food scientists travel around the world, conducting research in as many as six different countries in a single trip. These food scientists aren’t just polling taste preferences and forecasting results, they’re designing and performing detailed in-person experiments based on the complex factors that make up the human sense of taste. Specifically, how taste preferences change based on geographic locations across the world. And what they find directly influences the nutrition products Abbott makes for each region.

Each taste experiment is designed for precise statistical accuracy. A group of eight people may be selected to participate in a blind taste test. While in the study room, the participants will first be asked to list a few nutrition product qualities that they value most, such as sweetness, creaminess or vitamin fortification. Then they’ll taste several product samples, both individually and as a group. They rate them in over 20 factors that contribute to the overall taste of the product—such as sweetness, flavor intensity and aftertaste—generating anywhere between 200 and 250,000 points of data. Abbott sensory experts use these data to build a custom sensory profile for each region, which will act as models for future product formulation.

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Interestingly, the Abbott scientists’ data show that despite the huge variety of cuisines worldwide, the discerning palates of the global community have more in common than you might think.

“Surprisingly, we discovered more similarities [in multiple global regions] in tastes than differences,” says Jeff, “so we’re able to develop a nutrient-rich base product, and then adjust the flavor profile based on regional nuances.”

For example, Abbott scientists have incorporated ingredients like CaHMB—a muscle restoration supplement that’s grainy in texture and off-putting in taste—into products like Ensure nutrition drinks. Informed by sensory research, the scientists balanced the base formula with supplements that mask the CaHMB, and then built regional flavor systems to support more products. That’s stealth nutrition at its finest.

The results are well worth the effort—nourishing products that address distinct regional nutrition needs while catering to the local flavor.

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