Sensory Analysis Of Rations

As described in preceeding sections, the development of today's rations is driven by the logistical requirements of light weight, low volume, minimal preparation, and long-term stability under climatic extremes. These requirements have forced dramatic changes in the ingredients and processing technologies for rations and have resulted in significant changes to the familiar appearance, flavor, and texture of the foods and beverages served to the soldier. These changes have the potential to dramatically affect the acceptability of the rations and, in turn, the soldier's nutritional status, because rations that are not acceptable will not be consumed.

To ensure that military rations retain high standards for quality and consumer acceptability, all rations are engineered to specific sensory criteria and levels of consumer acceptability. The process of evaluation used to insure these criteria includes a wide variety of sensory and psychophysical techniques. Many of these methods and their applications in military ration development have been published over the years (4-10).

Primary among the methods are those known as affective, ie, those that address the criteria of consumer liking for the product. In one of the largest in-house laboratory consumer-testing programs in the world, all military rations undergo extensive testing in the computerized sensory analytic laboratories at Natick, where they are evaluated by a volunteer panel of over 500 civilian and military personnel. The most commonly used rating scale in these tests is the nine-point hedonic scale developed in the 1950s at the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute in Chicago, Natick's predecessor laboratory. This simple scale with points labeled from "dislike extremely" to "like extremely," has been shown to be both a valid and reliable measure of consumer acceptability and is now employed throughout the food industry to assess likes and dislikes for foods and beverages.

In addition to hedonic testing, which can be conducted either in the laboratory or in the field, extensive atti-tudinal testing is conducted on rations and ration concepts. These tests frequently take the form of written surveys administered to subjects to assess their beliefs, feelings and attitudes toward foods, beverages, meal items/ concepts, methods of packaging and preparation, food names, labels, condiment usage, etc. These data provide useful quantitative information for product and package developers to best meet the needs of the soldier in the field.

During the past few years greater emphasis has been placed on qualitative methods of consumer research, eg, focus group testing, for the assessment of consumer perceptions of ration and ration concepts. These qualitative procedures now supplement the quantitative survey and interview approaches. In addition, the concept of marketing military rations has been emphasized through closer examination of the importance of food names, packaging designs, and the role of consumer expectations in military feeding.

In contrast to the affective methods of ration assessment are the analytic methods, or those that use specialists with training in the lexicon and evaluation of the sensory characteristics of food. These methods include such approaches as flavor and/or texture profiling and food quality scoring. They are frequently used when (1) designing a ration item to meet an ideal or "target" sensory profile, (2) developing instrumental tests to correlate with specific sensory attributes, or (3) assessing the degradation of flavor or texture with time in storage.

Last, but no less important, are the wide variety of univariate and multivariate psychophysical methods that are applied to rations. These methods are most often used to analyze the combined effects on the soldier-consumer of the multiple sensory attributes of each ration item, and/or to determine the levels of each attribute required to achieve maximal acceptability of the item. These methods of analysis, coupled with the traditional methods described previously, have enabled military ration developers to more quickly achieve a desired target product than has previously been possible. Moreover, this sensory technology has been used to assist numerous other government agencies, such as the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, who frequently engage Natick to help solve problems of national concern and attention. Such technology transfer from the military feeding program to the public sector is a spin-off of a military program designed to solve problems on the cutting edge of food technology.

In summary, the engineering of today's military rations is keyed on the criteria of sensory quality and soldier acceptability. Through detailed consumer and sensory analytic testing in the laboratory and subsequent field testing, it can be insured that fielded rations will be well liked and consumed with minimum waste, so that all of the available nutrient content will be used by the soldier to optimize performance and maintain readiness for combat.

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