How would you describe cinnamon? Strong, sweet or hot? Maybe woody, musty or even astringent?
It might just depend on its origin, explains Silvia King, McCormick Scientist.
“We have learned that cinnamon doesn't taste like every kind of cinnamon,” she says. “Our cinnamon coming from the Island of Sumatra is going to have a different flavor profile than a cinnamon coming from Vietnam.”
These insights come courtesy of the trained taste professionals who make up McCormick’s descriptive panels. Each panelist undergoes a minimum of 100 hours of instruction and learns a lexicon of terms to ensure everyone uses the same vocabulary—all to help McCormick ensure consistent quality in every product.
“One of the things the descriptive panel can do is help us describe different origins of the same spice,” says King. “The descriptive panel can help us ... really understand what those differences are. But then, when we take it to consumers, we can also understand what type of profile consumers might like better.”
In the case of cinnamon, the variety sourced from Sri Lanka has a mild fruity flavor while Saigon cinnamon from Vietnam can be strong, sweet and hot—like Red Hots® candies. Sumatra cinnamon falls somewhere in the middle and is the most popular cinnamon in the US.
So with these options, how does a company decide which variety to use and how does it deliver a consistency in flavor year after year? For one, McCormick & Co. relies on its sensory scientists—experts who collect, measure and interpret people’s reactions to food—to evaluate the opinions of both regular consumers as well as trained professionals.
“We interpret how the body evaluates food, really understanding all of the different aspects that go into food consumption,” King says.
King was introduced to sensory science at a young age. Her father, a chemist, once brought home two loaves of bread, one green and one pink. Neither King nor her three siblings liked either option, even though both loaves were just regular bread with food coloring added.
“We know appearance is very critical to how you perceive a product,” says King. “Just knowing that it looked green made me think it tasted bad.”
Today, McCormick uses sensory science to evaluate ingredients and finished products. Their descriptive panels convene for four hours, five days each week. Operating in a red-lit room to eliminate visual biases, the panelists help develop new products, as well as determine a baseline flavor to ensure consistency in taste year after year.
Consumer panels, made up of the general public, help the company continue to improve products. These consumers taste test a variety of ingredients and then report back if they like it or not or what they’d like to see done differently. Consumers might not have the same technical descriptive ability as the trained panelists, but they are instrumental in identifying flavor profiles that people will want to use at home.
So whether something tastes “hot” versus “astringent” or “strong” versus “musty” really depends its origin – and all of your senses.