Sensory Science Focus Groups


By: Nikki Nies

When people talk, listen completely.  Most people never listen.” -Ernest Hemingway

Yes, one of the great American authors, Ernest Hemingway stated thecfans_asset_089259 above words that are as relevant today as when said in 20th century.   There is room for interpretation of the quote, but for today, Hemingway’s words resonate as a reminder of health professionals’ ongoing priority: to listen to clients, customers and colleagues needs.  In particular, Registered Dietitians (RDs) can better “listen” to clients and patients’ needs through the administration of focus groups.

To elaborate, the use of a focus group that consists of 6-12 participants using qualitative, quantitative methods of questionnaires and/or observations helps to understand consumer’s intrinsic characteristics (i.e. preferences of taste, aroma or color).  Consumers may not be able to articulate product preference, but with the use of focus groups, it allows researchers to take the guess work out of the equation and focus on the “what” differences. The goal is to recognize the perceptions, preferences, opinions and beliefs of a particular audience.

Not sure how to best incorporate focus groups into your daily work? Past research and examples of focus groups are a great reference and starting point for budding sensory scientists.   Again, focus groups can be used in a myriad of situations and populations.1

Use of Focus Groups by RDs:  

·         Making Tortillas without Lard: Latino Parents’ Perspectives on Healthy Eating, Physical Activity, and Weight-Management Strategies for Overweight Latino Children1

  • With Latinos among the most overweight racial/ethnic groups of US children, a study aimed to identify parents’ perspectives on healthy eating, physical activity, and weight-management strategies for overweight Latino children. Four focus groups were conducted of Mexican immigrant, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and other Latino families with overweight children. Parents were open to integrating healthy substitutes into traditional Latino meals/snacks, and found them palatable
  • Quinoa Flour as a Replacement for All Purpose Flour in a Peanut Butter Cookie2
    • As a high quality protein, fiber rich content and lack of gluten, quinoa flour is a great health substitute for celiac patients and for the health conscious. Objective tests and subjective evaluations were administered to university students, with no significant difference in preference found using a nine point likert scale. Although, the quinoa flour was described as significantly sweeter and chewier than the control group, the wheat flour
  • Research continues to show consumption of whole grains reduces one’s risk of diabetes. However, due to a lack of acceptability of brown rice for white rice, a study led by Zhang et al., 2010 looked at the feasability of introducing brown rice into the Chinese diet. Prior to tasting, most considered brown rice inferior to white rice in regards to unpalatable taste, rough texture and quality.  After tasting the brown rice, the majority of participated stated a willingness to try brown rice in the future.
  • Obtain baseline data on employee and/or customer preferences4
    • Using a focus group allows anonymity of opinions that may not be obtained otherwise. This allows employees and customers to feel more comfortable sharing the “whole truth.”  People are often more open with suggestions and concerns if there is less of a worry of repercussions with shared comments
    • Through the use of focus groups surveys, information obtained can be used to develop marketing surveys to assess customer perceptions of foodservice operation from employees that have direct contact4
  • Increase participation in community events, such as congregate meals5
    • The administration of focus groups, RDs can better understand what foods older adults are more receptive to at congregate meals. 5
    • In a study led by Lee et al., 2008, they inquired why there was an 18% decline in participation of congregate meals from 1980 to 2002. Researchers valued the senior’s beliefs about participation is fundamental to implement a successful program.  With four different meal sites, they learned what seniors valued in the congregate meals (social interaction, cost/savings on grocery bill, access to nutritious meals), but there were concerns for bland tasting breakfast and the lack of meals provided on the weekend. 5
  • Response to a “Better-For-You” peanut butter by three consumer population segments: A focus group Study6
    • It can’t be ignored that health claims and food labels influence consumer purchases. By using focus groups, one can assess consumer responsiveness to health claims, detect themes in consumer perception of peanut butter and determine potential impact of identifying peanut butter as an antioxidant or high rich fiber food.6
    • A study led by Harrison et al., examined the taste perception of peanut butter based on food label and health claims. It was found, while the health claims don’t necessarily impact purchasing decisions, but “taste” , appearance and price were the leading factors of purchasing power.6
  • Improve store and/or company brand quality through sensory evaluation methods7
    • Using sensory evaluation to determine acceptability and likeability of products can help companies brand their generic products to compete with national brands. By inquiring consumer’s perception of nutrition quality and packaging can provide dietitians with the ability to provide more “acceptable” visually pleasing company products.7
  • How to meet children’s taste and palate preferences more effectively8
    • It’s not realistic or effective to generalize children’s food preferences.  In a study led by Donadini et al., a hierarchical cluster analysis was used to better identify cheese preferences among preschoolers. 8  Among the clusters formed, it was evident some children focused on flavors and textures while others exclusively fixated on flavors.5  Such information could not be as easily obtained without the controlled setting administered and in addition with obtaining parental consent was required.

Sensory-Science-Course6As you can see, sensory science is its own platform of evaluative tools.9  Furthermore, sensory science is used for research purposes and not necessarily to manipulate people’s choices, but to provide choices that they don’t even recognize they want.10  The point is, while health professionals are given numerous opportunities to learn what consumers, clients and/or patients want, often times it’s easier to anticipate the wrong assumption or not really “hearing what’s said.”  Don’t squash the opportunity to use focus groups in your field of dietetics.  Better yet, I challenge you to find a way to incorporate at least one focus group study into your field of practice!

  1. Flores, Glenn et al. Making Tortillas without Lard: Latino Parents’ Perspectives on Healthy Eating, Physical Activity, and Weight-Management Strategies for Overweight Latino Children Journal of the American Dietetic Association , Volume 112 , Issue 1 , 81 – 89
  2. Harra, N.M. et al.Quinoa Flour Is an Acceptable Replacement for All Purpose Flour in a Peanut Butter Cookie Journal of the American Dietetic Association , Volume 111 , Issue 9 , A45
  3. Zhang, Geng et al. Substituting Brown Rice for White Rice to Lower Diabetes Risk: A Focus-Group Study in Chinese Adults Journal of the American Dietetic Association , Volume 110 , Issue 8 , 1216 – 1221
  4. Perlmutter C, Gregoire M, Canter D. Use of focus groups to improve nutrition services in a worksite cafeteria. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1994;94(9):A76.
  5. Lee K, Gould R. Using focus groups to access beliefs of seniors about participating in congregate meal programs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008;108(9):A110.
  6. Harrison J, Hargrove J, Kerr W, Pegg R, Swanson R. Response to a “Better-for-you” peanut butter by three consumer population segments: A focus group Study. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014;114(9):A61.
  7. Way L, Paris K, Poynor S. Sensory evaluation methods to select, maintain and improve store brand products and quality. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2011;111(9):A18.
  8. Grenci A, Brill M, Kinsey J, Hughes L, Cirignano S, Morgan K. Parent focus groups spotlight opportunities for nutrition professionals to collaborate on school wellness Initiatives. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012;112(9):A81.
  9. Rohall S, Ballintine J, Vowels J, Wexler L, Simeral S, Goto K. Who’s your patty: Sensory evaluation of burger patties made with different types of meat or plant-based Products. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109(9):A68.

Photo Credit: University of Minnesota and Nottingham

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