Guest editorial

Bob Baron, Ph.D.


Sensory Spectrum Inc.

United States

We are currently experiencing one of the largest challenges the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industry has faced in recent years. At the 2022 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual conference and expo, supply chain woes were identified as one of the largest hurdles currently facing the food industry (1). These concerns are not only focused on the food industry, but also on ingredients and additives which are a global business. Ingredient shortages are forcing processors to reformulate, downsize and look for alternate sources or alternative ingredients (2). Companies are facing major disruptions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, labor shortages, and the war in Ukraine. This conflagration has left many industries scrambling to keep products on the shelf.  

These supply chain disruptions have triggered a variety of ingredient substitution and process changes. Product developers and formulators are being pressed to come up with recipes that preserve the sensory characteristics (appearance, aroma, taste, and texture) with a new set of raw materials. The sensory evaluation function has traditionally been called upon to help when ingredient or process changes are needed due to cost cutting or productivity improvement measures. The research usually includes comparing a control (current product) to the test product. Data driven informed decisions about changes can be made based on the appropriate testing methodologies.   

In the global marketplace, pre-pandemic, manufacturers were accustomed to having a ready supply of raw materials. However, the worldwide disruptions to the supply chain have caused widespread outages of key raw materials(3). Inflation and the military conflict in Europe are only adding to these challenges. This has all left manufacturers looking to find alternatives. Alternatives may mean a different supplier of the same ingredient or in some cases it may mean a total rework of a formula. 

Currently, manufacturers are looking to minimize disruption by qualifying alternatives. This can take on a few different forms, based on the overall objective and level of risk. The following are three common scenarios businesses face and suggested research approaches.   

  • Change the formula or process without creating a noticeable change in the product. A key ingredient may no longer be available, but changes in the sensory experience are not acceptable. This may be a long-standing product with a loyal consumer following. Therefore, the goal would be to take as little risk as possible. The approach in this case would be to review alternatives with a qualified team of evaluators.  This can be a core team including sensory, product development, and brand who are familiar with the product(s). Additionally, this can be done by a qualified research consultant with the appropriate experience and staff. The goal is an iterative approach to identify the best possible candidate that is a match to the control. Once a close match is identified, difference testing is completed (ex. Triangle test, Tetrad, etc.) (4).  If the alternative passes the difference testing criteria, the change can be made. This procedure could be replicated over the shelf-life to ensure that the alternative remains a match as the product(s) ages. 

  • Change the formula or process with no or slight change in the product.  A key ingredient may no longer be available, but only minimal changes in the sensory experience are acceptable. This product(s) is not long standing or doesn’t have a loyal following. It may be a lesser brand, rotational product, or seasonal offering. Therefore, the company may be willing to take more risk. Like the first option, a core team of evaluators can compare the control to the various options. In this case they may use a simple tool such as the Degree of Difference (DOD) (5) to quantify the difference between the control and test. The best choice would be the test product(s) that comes the closest to the control. At this point the change would be made and the product would be distributed. In this case there is a risk that slight differences may be apparent, but the risk is worth continuation of supply. 

  • A match is not possible. Due to the available supply of raw materials the alternative is different from the control. To accommodate these changes, a team familiar with the product(s) and consumer sentiment should review alternatives and select the best options with which to move forward, knowing that the alternatives are different from the control. To validated findings, quantitative consumer research with heavy product users is conducted. Consumers should evaluate the alternative(s) for acceptability, purchase interest, and any other key questions. The product(s) moving forward will need to be at parity or an improvement versus the control. Other business considerations will factor into the final decision to launch a product that is different from the established product. 

These approaches to overcoming supply chain challenges make up only a few of many possible courses of action ranging in both complexity and rigor. Regardless of the chosen research approach, shortages and outages will be burdening our industry for the foreseeable future. Companies will be facing the challenge of what to do when they cannot secure key raw materials. Bringing together cross-functional teams who can navigate through the challenge is a solid place to start. Formulation alternatives that meet consumer expectations can be developed if you have teams with the proper training, creativity and research design experience. 

Using sensory and consumer research to address supply chain disruptions