Chetan Sharma is completing his doctorate in human nutrition at Kansas State University under the guidance of Martin Talavera, assistant professor of sensory analysis and consumer behavior. For his dissertation, Sharma is conducting a multiyear project that looks at the sensory aspects of potatoes — one of the world's largest food crops. He is focusing specifically on the drivers behind what people like about potatoes.
"If someone says that they 'like' something, such as coffee or chocolate, we understand it to mean that they found that food enjoyable," Sharma said. "But for companies that produce foods and products, a consumer saying they 'like' something is a vague descriptive term that doesn't provide insight about what that means and why. This creates a knowledge gap when it comes to making products people want."
Sharma is working to decode vague concepts, such as "like" and taste, into a common language that helps sensory researchers, potato breeders, restaurants and other food producers better align potato and potato products with consumer expectations and desires.
For the first phase of the project, Sharma worked with universities in Colorado and Oregon to collect 55 potato varieties among the more than 4,000 grown worldwide. Sharma also worked with the Center for Sensory Analysis and Consumer Behavior at Kansas State University's Manhattan campus to develop a technical language comprised of sensory descriptors. The language, called a lexicon, helps breakdown, standardize and streamline terminology involving the taste, smell, visual appearance, texture and mouthfeel of several potato varieties. Mustardy, cauliflower, beany, earthy, cardboard and metallic are some of the flavor nodes included in the potato lexicon.
Sharma conducted consumer testing with 100 consumers to evaluate each of the 12 potato varieties on liking, taste, texture, aroma and visual appearance.
Some of Sharma's findings include that people prefer the cooked taste versus roasted or raw and a more smooth than dry texture. He also found that color deeply affects perception and opinion.
"People do not like color," said Sharma, who included varieties of purple and canary yellow potatoes in tests. "Even though these colored potatoes had characteristics that were similar to the more familiar varieties like russet or white, they were disliked because of their color. People reported that they enjoyed them if they closed their eyes, but otherwise they said these colored varieties did not look like potatoes."
Sharma is currently conducting the third phase of the project, which sheds light on what qualities people think about when buying potatoes and how that affects their purchase. He is looking at multiple factors that may influence decision-making, including potato variety, where the potato is grown and whether the potato is organic.