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PHIALA MEHRING AND ANDY WARDLAW

Screenshot 2024 02 12 At 12.54.21

MMR is a consumer research agency specialising in analysing the sensory aspects of food and beauty products. The agency recently hosted a seminar on the importance of texture and explored the rise of “QQ texture”. Though often described as Asia’s answer to al dente, the comparison fails to capture the simultaneously elastic and gooey texture of QQ, found in delicacies like fish balls, Korean tteokbokki and mochi. Terms such as “gummy” or “resistant” have traditionally carried negative connotations within the European culinary tradition, bringing to mind memories of school dinner tapioca pudding or gluey sheets of tripe. However, as Asian eating habits are adopted by Gen Z consumers in the West, brands are recognising the importance of a comprehensive sensory profile in their products. TANK spoke to Phiala Mehring, MMR’s sensory director, and Andy Wardlaw, the agency’s chief ideas officer.

Interview by Matteo PiniPortrait by Rebecca Bolton

MATTEO PINI What does MMR do?

PHIALA MEHRING We work for blue-chip multinational companies to optimise their food and home care products. We do this through the consumer lens, looking at the subjective and the affective, because only consumers can tell you about what they like and why, including how it makes them feel. We also have expert-trained panels, which are all about objectivity, nothing to do with individual desires or preferences. If you think of any product – let’s use pasta as an example – what are the touch points? There will be visual qualities, there will be aroma, there will be flavour, there will be texture. What we do as a company is look at products, combining the understanding of the consumers experience of using them with our expert panels’ objective deconstruction of all the sensory touch-points of the product experience. This is a very powerful way of understanding the experience of using our clients' products.

ANDY WARDLAW We know that consumers growing up in the digital age are highly stimulated, which is having an impact on their brains, conditioning them to seek out higher levels of stimulation in the real world. As a result, we’ve been talking a lot about the elevation of sensory characteristics and reminding audiences how the senses are intimately entwined. Texture changes can influence perceived taste, for example. Phiala and I would agree that in the last ten years or so, the narrative has been about how, in Eastern cultures, texture often has equal weight to taste. The opportunity was there for the West to catch up. There is a growing need for manufacturers to create that “wow” feeling very early on in a product experience. If you’ve had that immediate “wow”, then it goes on to inform the rest of that experience.

MP If consumers are demanding higher levels of stimulation from their food, where does that leave so-called “low-stimulation” foods? I’m thinking about foods like congee or polenta, which remain popular despite being less texturally dynamic.

AW Anything that provides people with a new element of experience even in categories that are “slow” is important, because we’re all subject to this world of stimulation. When there is the opportunity to innovate and come up with new ways to experience old favourites, that’s great, because the world needs comfort right now. What sensory characteristics convert to comfort? What impacts will those textures will have on the taste profile? 

PM There’s an element of ontological security here, isn’t there? When times get tough or you’re tired or you’ve had a bad day at work, you want foods that reassure you or that are familiar. It is back to that affective side of things: people think they choose products because of very succinct reasoning, but they do not. There’s a whole lot going on that they’re less aware of. The driving preference at any given moment in time has as much to do with one’s environment, where are you in your head, what’s been going on in your day, as it does with one’s ongoing patterns. If products can appeal to that self-identity, then people will buy them. 

MP I did a survey in the TANK office on people’s favourite textures. There was a sense that sensory perception, specifically of texture, is an unconscious thing until it’s wrong, like the shock of finding a bone in a piece of chicken. Do you think that’s true?

PM Partly. If you think of chocolate, that is fundamentally about the texture, isn’t it? How that initial bite melts in the mouth, how smooth it is. If you start to think like that, you realise a lot of products are all about the texture. It’s the first thing you notice when you get them in your mouth.

AW When people say they like the taste of something, they’re often misappropriating: they loved it because it was creamy or smooth, which is actually a textural component. We did a massive chocolate study in North America. There were creamy and smooth chocolates, but there were a couple of chalky chocolates that weren’t liked at all, despite being premium. That was a good example of where texture failed.

PM Plant-based meat is another good example of where, if the texture is suboptimal, people notice. That said, we can speculate that when the texture of plant-based meat is exactly the same as real meat it invokes what’s known in behavioural sciences as the uncanny valley, which is, “How did they do that? That’s weird. It’s too sciencey. I’m running away”. Even when the sensory profile of texture matches, it’s not necessarily a good solution. 

MP In my survey, the textures that people struggled with consistently were eggs and mushrooms.

AW If you’re overthinking what the egg is, I can see how that might cause some revulsion. Would you agree, Phiala, that maybe mushrooms are nature’s mochi? There is that resistance. 

PM Definitely.

MP Is there an order of culinary sensory perception? Once you consume something, is it texture first, then smell, then flavour, or is it a multivalent process of experience?

PM It is more complex. It is also psychological because it’s based on what’s queued up in your mind. There’s not an order that I’m aware of and I don’t see how there can be, because we’re talking about human beings interacting with products. Therein lies the next problem, which is, how do you measure experience? There’s a whole load of equipment that claims to be able to evaluate food, but the problem with that is food interacts with psychology, affect, emotions. 

MP So there’s no one dominant sense? It’s all an interplay?

PM Our sense of vision has an overriding power. There’s the age-old trick where if you get a strawberry-flavoured jelly and colour it differently, people will swear blind that the purple one is blackcurrant and the orange one is orange, even though they’re all the same flavour. Even things like the shape of bottles matter: if you have an orange drink, and you put it into a square bottle and a round bottle, people will tell you it tastes different. This is called cross-modular sensory perception, where one sense overrides another sense. You can really mess around with people’s understanding.

AW There is science that says that the eyes take in more information than all the other senses put together, and studies that have found that you can reduce the impact of sugar by experimenting with colour. So visuals do have the most overriding effect, but every other sense still carries a lot of weight too.

PM A good example of that is Charles Spence, who won the Nobel Prize for his crisps experiment. Participants would eat a fresh crisp while he would pump the sound of a stale crisp through headphones, and people would describe it as stale. The sound overrode what was being perceived in the mouth: it was telling the brain the crisps were stale when they were fresh, and vice versa. We’ve not even talked about the impact of your sense of self, because that will also have a role in what you perceive. 

MP I wanted to touch on the QQ texture. QQ is a kind of chewiness that doesn’t break down easily in the mouth, chewiness for the sake of the chew. Why do you think there’s been historical resistance to this in a Western context?

AW The QQ texture is alien to many Western cultures. We recently tried a range of snacks from China and they are almost all about the texture. Many were slimy, for example. The experience was far from pleasant for some. But, for those open to new experiences, there was much to explore here, but I suspect there are many consumers – I’ve got my mother in my head right now – who would resist that because it is not something that we are used to. It suggests that humans need time to adapt.

PM And there’s complexity. If you’ve got a child in an environment where they’re not exposed to complexity, where their foods are simple, the complexity theory suggests that even as their brain develops they will not be adventurous eaters. It’s about your environment: what’s in bounds, what’s out of bounds? With Gen Z, who perhaps have grown up with more complexity in their lives – perhaps that’s feeding into some of this desire for more stimulus or more interesting things.

MP Do you think there are any textures that are a no-go for Western audiences? Are there any limits to what we can appreciate?

AW Sliminess is a challenge because it’s often associated with rotten foods, so it seems plausible that we might want to avoid them. 

PM I would say yes, because I know I’ve encountered textures which, if you’ll excuse me, provoke the gag reflex. When we tested some Japanese green teas – the very thick and gloopy ones – some of the Western panellists couldn’t deal with the texture. 

MP When sushi or sashimi was brought to the West 40 years ago, it must have been a pretty hard sell for Westerners. Why do you think there was a change there? 

PM I don’t know about sushi, but you’ve made me think about Red Bull. When Red Bull was first launched, it sold itself on being disgusting and completely reshaped the whole energy drink market. Out the window went this idea that things have got to taste nice. Here was something that was popular because it tasted like it was going to give you a kick of energy. It tasted medicinal. Some of it has to be about how these things are cleverly sold and positioned to make them desirable. 

AW If Red Bull lacked the medicinal note, would we believe that it can gives us wings? If they’d just developed a nice liquid, we don’t think it would have been successful. The medicinal note reinforces the strapline, and provides a distinctive sensory signature.

MP I’m thinking about Listerine in this capacity. The mouth burning makes it feel like it’s doing something. 

AW It’s reinforcement, isn’t it? 

PM Few medicines taste nice because that would cue up the wrong idea. 

MP What would you say the biggest sensory trends for 2024 to look out for will be?

AW Our Gen Z research indicates that there is this appetite for pushing away from the middle, the average, and that this generation is looking for something that is going to provide more of a challenge. Whether that then makes its way into a sort of habitual practising, I can’t say, but there is a more experimental mindset emerging. I think the challenge for big food players, in addition to elevating the sensory signatures of its core range, is to continually provide those new stimulations in their portfolios. When you go down the aisle at the supermarket, it’s mainly classified by different flavours. There are certain categories like orange juice with bits or smooth, but mostly, there’s not that sort of segmentation by texture. It’s starting to happen with aroma now: you’re getting certain products coming out with aromatic claims, which is interesting. But texture is the sense that companies recognise they’ve got some catching up to do with the East, in terms of making texture much more part of the experience.

PM It’s a poor relative of flavour at the moment. ◉