Professor Lisa Methven is a Professor in Food and Sensory Science within the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences. She currently leads the SureChoc project: a partnership between Israeli food-tech company, DouxMatok, Swiss flavour and fragrance company, Givaudan, Israeli food and beverage manufacturer, Strauss, and the University of Reading’s Sensory Science Centre. The project is funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT Food).
Sensory evaluation is an essential tool for optimising consumer acceptance of food products, and is vital in gaining an understanding of how we perceive flavour, taste and texture. Launched in collaboration with the independent market research group MMR Research Worldwide Ltd, our Sensory Science Centre provides high-quality evaluation data for MMR's food, drink and healthcare clients, as well as the University's research and teaching programmes. Undergraduate students have the opportunity to use the Centre's tasting booths to learn how to conduct tests and evaluate consumer feedback.
The Centre delivers high-quality research needed to address food industry challenges, improve existing lines, and create new products. With government taxes on sugar and growing consumer demands for healthier foods, a big part of the Centre's work is in product reformulation: reducing salt and calories from both sugar and saturated fat in processed foods, along with understanding and modifying the perception and acceptability of foods.
The SureChoc project developed a healthier milk chocolate bar – high in fibre, low in sugar and with the texture of a normal bar:
"We know both children and adults love their chocolate – and its desirability makes it difficult to remove from the diet. Now everyone can have their favourite treat, but without the high intake of sugar."
Using DouxMatok's sugar-reduction solution, Lisa and her team created a milk chocolate bar that tastes as good as the real thing but has nearly half the sugar, more fibre, and a type of sugar that enhances sweetness. This special sugar negates the need for any artificial sweeteners as a higher percentage of it can be enjoyed on the tongue, rather than heading straight for the digestive system. Lisa explains that the project did not attempt to produce an exact match for the flavour or texture profile of milk chocolate:
"Our aim was to understand the effects of the changes we made and optimise our formulation until we had a product that is desirable to the final consumer."
Throughout 2019, researchers at the University of Reading ran consumer tests on 160 regular consumers. The results surprised even Lisa:
"When volunteers were asked how much they liked our new, low-sugar chocolate, they gave it a score of 5.1 out of 7 – almost as high as the 5.7 out of 7 scored by the real thing."
She also stressed that consumers were very engaged with the idea of buying products that were enriched with fibre and lower in sugar:
"When asked if they would choose a high-fibre product, 74% said yes for chocolate and 64% for cookies; this increased to 83% and 77% respectively when the consumers were informed that the high-fibre chocolate was also lower in sugar."
The SureChoc project also involved master’s and undergraduate students in a research capacity. From the development of chocolate chip cookies to the evaluation of physico-chemical and sensory properties, Reading students have played their part in the development of this healthier, and tastier, new product.