Sensory Analyst Puts His Nose to the Grindstone

By Cindy Atoji Keene

The human nose is the most sensitive instrument in the world, said Roy Desrochers, a sensory analyst at GEI Consultants in Woburn. People can detect odors in even infinitesimal quantities, so if a product smells foul or a manufacturing plant is giving off a stench, highly-trained experts like Desrochers are often called in by manufacturers to address odor and flavor issues. His tasks range from the absurd, such as eating dog and cat food, or smelling used feminine napkins, to the enjoyable – such as tasting beer, ice cream and chocolate. “Sensory evaluation helps companies evaluate their products and services to ensure product quality, consumer satisfaction, and marketing success,” said Desrochers, 51. “Odor and flavor issues can be complex and aren’t always easy to understand.”

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Whether it’s trying to determine the best shelf life of products; detecting possible smells from paper or plastic packaging; or examining a tainted water supply, Desrochers deploys a panel of human evaluators to respond to the products being tested. Test results are recorded, then a statistical analysis is deployed to generate insights and inferences regarding the product, said Desrochers, who also spends more than half the year traveling the globe to provide sensory staff training in places such as India and Taiwan. “As consumer preferences change, businesses must also frequently re-evaluate flavors, tastes and odors to determine product strategy,” said Desrochers.

Q: What’s the difference between your nose and the nose of the average person?
A: The main difference is that I’ve worked very hard to smell and taste a lot of things and memorize what they are, so I can put a correct name to it what I’m smelling and tasting. You might say, ‘this is a funny taste,’ while I would say it’s nonanoic acid, which is a rancid tasting beer. While we are both tasting the same thing, I can identify what it is and what to do about it. It’s like practicing a musical instrument. It’s important to have a vocabulary that expresses how something smells and tastes.

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Q: What is your typical day like?
A: I show up for work at 7 a.m., and by 7:30, I could be sitting at a beer panel tasting six different beers. Then, at 8:40, I’ll be conducting a second panel, tasting orange juice. Then I might get a complaint about odors in a neighborhood, so I’ll drive around the streets and go to the factory grounds to try to pinpoint the cause. In the afternoon, I’m back in the lab, sniffing new plastic resins to use for a beverage bottle; then later, I’ll have a video conference with a group in India, Internet tasting with people around the world. My last panel of the day might be new prototypes of low-sugar chocolates.

Q: What do you do if you have a cold?
A: If you are just congested and a little bit of air still gets through, that’s all you need for the nose to work. The nose can be somewhat fickle at times, though, with certain safety mechanism to protect you. If you smell something really strong, such as hydrogen sulfide, a smell from sewers, the nose will shut down and won’t let you smell it anymore.

Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: I have two degrees, in chemistry and geology. I thought I’d be working in a lab doing analytical chemistry, but I interviewed for a job that ended up being for a beer taster. The woman asked me, “Do you have any objections to tasting beer?” I spent my first 19 years at this company, doing all sort of sensory, environmental and packaging work, not just beer.

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Q: What’s the future of sensory analysis?
A: There’s a lot of activity around e-noses, or electronic noses, especially for testing tobacco or alcohol. The technology is getting better, but I don’t think instruments will ever replace people.

Q: What’s your favorite smell?
A: That’s a tough question; it’s like asking which one of my kids is my favorite. But I’m a bit of a romantic, so I like things that remind me of the good old days, like musty books. I also love the smell of good perfrume, especially a nice fruity, floral scent.

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