Effective communication between materials scientists, packaging manufacturers, food processors and consumers is key to understanding package-product interactions, researchers say.
Speaking at the recent American Chemical Society meeting, Professor Susan Duncan from the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech said that better communication between the disciplines could deepen our understanding behind sensory changes in food, whether intentional or unintentional, during processing and packaging.
"Effective communication is essential at numerous levels throughout the process of resolving sensory problems that occur in packaged foods. Of utmost importance is for the client to clearly communicate the problem or the need to the sensory specialist," said Duncan in her presentation.
"For example, a materials scientist may wish to determine if a new material will effectively work in a given food application, seeking information to share with a packaging manufacturer or converter.
"A packaging supplier may need to have answers to address consumer complaints of a "plastic taste" in a packaged product. Verifying that changing packaging material will not affect product quality may be important to a food processor," she added.
Professor Duncan went on to identify how analytical chemistry can provide qualify and quantify changes in sensory perception but pointed out that these do not fully define the human response. To better answers questions on the human response, she said that sensory evaluation methods could provide the means to an end.
And in order to make the most of these human studies, a common language to describe the sensory perceptions must be developed - lexicons.
"Words used in lexicons are seldom specific to the volatile organic chemistry measured by analytical methods. Reference standards are used to help define these words and terms and provide a frame of reference. Reference standards may include volatile organic compounds or simple systems that provide the sensory sensation," explained Duncan.
"The use of a lexicon provides a method for standardizing the language used in describing a class of products or food categories. A sensory lexicon does not exist for the interaction of foods and materials."
Another tool to describe or characterise odorants and tastes is the flavour-and-odour wheel, already well developed for wine, beer, water, and many other food categories.
However, such a tool does not yet exist for food-packaging interactions, but the evidence of sensory changes relating to these interactions can be captured on the existing wheels, said Duncan.
"Providing client support along the materials-packaging-food processing channel is important to maintain client satisfaction," concluded Duncan. "Increasing communication skills for sensory issues among the different scientific disciplines can be improved by developing a lexicon and a flavour-and-odour wheel related to food-packaging interactions."
Many companies are investing in new packaging for food, as manufacturers are looking for environmentally friendly, practical film that complies with regulatory demands.
Recent innovations include a new oxygen barrier film made by Swedish company Xylophane, while many companies are carrying out research into films made using nanotechnology.
At Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, work is underway on the design of nanoclay particles, which are expected to significantly improve the barrier properties and mechanical strength of new biopolymer films and coatings.
Professor Duncan's research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.
Presented at the 234th ACS National Meeting, Boston.
Abstract number Poly 368. Presented August 23, 2007
"Flavor and aroma of food and package interactions: Perception and communication"
Author: S.E. Duncan