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Sensory analyst puts nose to the grindstone

The human nose is the most sensitive instrument in the world, said Roy Desrochers, a sensory analyst who employs his highly trained schnoz for GEI Consultants in Woburn.

Experts like Desrochers are often called on by manufacturers to address odor and flavor issues. He may try to determine the best shelf life of products, detect possible smells from packaging, or examine a tainted water supply.

His tasks range from the absurd, such as eating dog and cat food, to the enjoyable, such as tasting ice cream.

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“Sensory evaluation helps companies ensure product quality, consumer satisfaction, and marketing success,” said Desrochers, 52. “Odor and flavor issues can be complex and aren’t always easy to understand.”

What’s the difference between your nose and the nose of the average person?

The main difference is 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 what I’m smelling and tasting. You might say, “This is a funny taste,” while I would say it’s nonanoic acid, which is rancid beer.

What is your typical day like?

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. Later, I’ll have a video conference with a group in India, Internet tasting with people around the world. My last panel might be prototypes of low-sugar chocolates.

What do you do if you have a cold?

If you are 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, though, with mechanisms 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.

How did you get into this line of work?

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.

What’s the future of sensory analysis?

There’s a lot of activity around e-noses, or electronic noses. The technology is getting better, but I don’t think instruments will ever replace people.

What’s your favorite smell?

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 perfume.

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