• John Ennis

Alexandra Pierce-Feldmeyer - Flavors of Research


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Dr. Alexandra (Alex) Pierce-Feldmeyer is a sensory scientist at Mane, Inc., where her research interests include how psychology influences flavor perception and how we can better measure reactions to foods and beverages, including implicit and explicit measures of human behavior. Alex completed her PhD at Ohio State University in sensory evaluation and psychophysics, assessing the functional or cognitive benefits from food and food ingredients.


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Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)



John: So, Alex, welcome to the show.


Alex: Thank you so much for having me.


John: Okay, great. Actually it's funny, Alex because, you know, you and I know each other pretty well from different collaborations. But I actually don't know that much about you're graduate research. So I thought it'd be interesting if we could just start up with that. I oftentimes find the best questions, the ones that I really would like to answer. So you get to tell our listeners about the work you did when you're getting your PhD.


Alex: Yeah, I'd love to. It was a great experience and the lab was awesome. It was really hard to leave that lab.


John: Is this Chris Simons?


Alex: Yes. Dr. Chris Simons at Ohio State. And he has an interesting background that combines a lot of like neurology, psychology with a lot of food science. So my dissertation was actually on, like, functional benefits of flavors. And what we boiled it down to was stress. So a lot of people are stressed. It's an ongoing issue. And when we looked at were certain flavor compounds and how they may alleviate stress. But we looked at it from the standpoint of both subjective and objective measures. So we wanted to understand if people, you know, if they were experiencing these flavors, did they consciously think that they were less stress? And was their physiology mimicking that or mimicking at least their perception of it? But the other twigs we put on that study was the fact that when you smell something, you smell in two different pathways. And there's a lot of research to back up. Theo's being a little bit different, even though theoretically they're both just taking a different pathway to the same mucosa. So you would kind of hypothesize that they would be perceived similarly. But that's not always the case. There's a lot of things that differentiate them and people kind of help that ortho needle. When you sniff through your nostrils, that's kind of what you think of as smelling through your nostrils. And then there's retronasal which occurs through your oral cavity. So it's in your mouth. It's kind of how we perceive flavor. So it's often associated more with food and flavors. So there's associations with those pathways. But I mean, there's been a lot of research to say that they're processed differently as well, like in the brain. You behave differently with them. So if you think of something like a stinky cheese, you may really not like to be around that stinky cheese when you're sniffing it. Maybe you actually enjoy eating it. And there's other examples of that, too. But that was kind of the premise was let's look at these two routes and kind of like feed our panelists some flavor compounds. So we looked at linalool, which is a primary component in lavender. And a lot of people consider lavender to be relaxing. We also looked at vanillin, and we did like a blank control. And what we actually ended up finding was pretty interesting. We measured some physiological things, so we measured salsbury enzymes. We looked at emulous indication of stress. We also looked at heart rate variability. That was probably our strongest signal because we tried EKG. But it was difficult because you had to be very still. It's a very sensitive measure. But the heart rate variability indicated that people were actually more relaxed when they were inhaling the linalool retronasally but not necessarily orthronasally. So it was through the oral cavity, which we had hypothesized that maybe this had meant that, you know, maybe there was some higher concentration in the blood flow or something like that. But we just didn't end up getting that far because time was up. But it led to a lot of other questions, which became really interesting. And it kind of like it made me like foster this real fascination with how different compounds can really affect us physiologically. And kind of play with our perception on them as well. A lot of people talk about the placebo effect and those things, but we didn't actually see very many subjective effects.


John: That's very interesting. So with so does this mean that, for example, with a lavender drink might be more relaxing and smelling leaven?


Alex : Right. That was actually one of the things we wanted to look at next was, okay, well, if somebody is consuming lavender rather than just sniffing it, did that actually create a larger difference? And do we see a similar effect? Yes. So that would be something to look into the future as well as it just opened up so many other flavor compounds, right? That was one compound. There's endless amounts of compounds. So it's really an interesting idea to entertain. How many more you might be able to look at.


John: Right. That's fascinating. And we have recently been working together on some research along these lines. So are you able to share that at this point?


Alex: Well, I mean, I definitely can talk about just my general interest in orthonasal versus retronasal was definitely fostered in grad school. I just I love that there's this mixture of how our perception plays with kind of like how that manifest physiologically. I think there's a lot you can learn through that, mostly because there's so many consumer products that we associate sense with, and it's not just food and beverage. So it's interesting to look at food and beverage because they often have both an orthonasal or a sniff component as well as a flavor consumption component. But there's things I know my husband, he always likes to buy the scented trash bags and I don't really like them, but I don't really know why, other than the fact that's probably just associated with trash because it never ends up smelling good to me. It just ends up smelling weird. But there's things like that where there's an aroma associated with something, but you're not experiencing it the same way you experience a flavor.


John: Right. Yeah, there's artificiality there.


Alex: Or there's like candles or cleaning products. So there's a lot of things because smell has such a psychological component. It's really like when when you separate orthonasal and retronasal, you could end up learning more about that consumer and their perception because there are certain products that are only experienced one way or more interesting both ways to. When those perceptions differ can lead to a lot of insight I think.


John: Okay, it's fascinating. A couple of questions that I kind of come to mind. So there's always part of being interviewers, having to pick the next question, right?


Alex: Yeah.


John: So here's the thing is, as far as smell, I definitely because I know that you have actually had a fascinating interview with, I think some sort of a anthropologist's or something like that.


Alex: Yeah.


John: The fact that smell, is smell the oldest sense? Is that the kind of the first other than factile?


Alex: I don't know, because, I mean, I'm not an expert in this, but it sounds like from an evolutionary perspective that it was extremely important. And I think they think that because of the way it's structured in our brain. There's actually a pathway that goes through like the limbic system. And that's where a lot of like we get those emotional connections to sense and memories and things like that where that's kind of our only sense that does that. It would be more ingrained in us like earlier.


John: Right. So say you smell cut grass and it takes you back to high school or whatever, you know.


Alex: Cookies, Christmas I mean, you name it. And also what complicates this type of research, right? Because like even culturally, I believe that there certain it might be Spearmint or Wintergreen or something where that's more associated with cleaning products. I want to say like Europe, whereas here we actually have candy that's like that so there's a disconnect. So you have to kind of be aware of those types of things, too.


John: Yeah. I think it's Wintergreen as a cleaning product. It might be Europe. Yeah because I remember, my mom, she's from Ireland. She came to America and she's like, why would you suck on Wintergreen? It's like gardening, toilet cleaner or something.


Alex: Exactly. Like it would be really gross to us if we were like, let's flavor candy like Windex or something like that wouldn't work.


John: Exactly. Okay, so then another kind of follow-up question. So we've got these two pathways and so do you have any speculation as to like, so at the end of the day, I mean, are there different receptors that are getting stimulated or how is it possible that you end up with these different responses from the two pathways?


Alex: I don't know. So this has been very mysterious, but there has been a lot of research that has looked at it from different measurement perspective. So I know that there's also the added component of like food versus non-food aromas. So that throws another point on it because of these associations. But they've looked at it like with processing. So I know Dana Small, believes she's affiliated with Yale, has looked at neural processes which differ. Hileman and Hummell of Dresden, Germany. They do a lot and they've found that like some of the processing also differs as well as like old factory related potentials. This is not my area of expertise, but there are actual differences that people have recorded in their brain while also being aware of perceptual differences. So there's things also like salivation is different. There's also differences and thresholds. So we tend to be more sensitive when we sniff through our nose than when we are experiencing something through the retronasal or oral cavity route. So there's all these differences and they kind of span the spectrum of conscious perception to things that are happening in the brain. But as far as like a mechanism goes, I am not aware of one, but..


John: There must be something because they are different.


Alex: Right. There is something going on.


John: Yeah, it's really fascinating. Now, is this, I mean, a kind of longstanding question I want to ask, you know, I mean like ingredient suppliers are definitely, you know, among my clients. And the what is the line between the flavor and the fragrance? How is that defined?


Alex: That's a good question. So I always feel like with Mane, my company, their flavor and fragrance. And I've always been interested in learning more about the fragrance category myself, because, of course, my kind of graduate school background has all been in food science. And we even really separate that where I am. So we don't work a lot on fragrance. Sometimes our consumer insights will work with fragrance, but that's more research for them and less on like the actual science behind them. I don't really know. I know that there's a lot of similarities with them. But of course, I mean, aside from the fact that one is edible and one is not right. I don't have a lot of background. Like, I don't know what really distinguishes them other than the regulatory aspects.


John: Right. It also seems like what these two pathways that there's a kind of a match up, right?


Alex: Right. And what's fun about fragrance which like a total opposite of food and flavor. Food and flavor is so secretive, right? There's all these like we can't talk about, whereas fragrance is like putting up billboards and romanticising all of it and calling out the perfumers. And it's like this big marketing thing. But it's also interesting because they're really playing on that psychological, emotional aspect of a fragrance. And food and flavors kind of do that from like on nostalgia perspective. But fragrance is kind of fun in that way, where they're like I mean, there are commercials will, you know, kind of use a lot of hyperbole as far as like what aroma or emotion they're trying to get after, especially in regards to a gender. It's like a cologne or a perfume. It's kind of fun to play on that because it is a huge part of aroma. Like, you're not going to wear something that makes you think of something that you hate.


John: Right. There's psychological interactions, all of this just you know, whenever I have these kinds of conversations about how incredibly complex and individualized sensory experience is, I just think, you know, good luck with some of the areas. That you know, it's just like, yeah, I mean, I think that you can, not as completely undermine the whole idea of it, because I would say that, you know, for drivers of liking machine learning is valuable. I do think if you got particular outcomes, binary outcomes you're trying to predict. I think you can make headway with that predicting binary outcomes from, you know, analytic information, that kind of thing. But, you know, for example, Curtis Luckett was on the show and not too long ago and he was talking about just how much the way that someone chews food interacts with, you know, perception of texture and that you have these different brain patterns and you have to keep track of how people are chewing or you are not going to understand their data, right?


Alex: Texture is fascinating. That's another thing that Chris Simons has really done a lot of good work in. Like I think they just released a paper on the sensitivity of our tongue. He has a grad student, Brittany Miles, that is doing really really interesting work. I believe that even worked a little bit with, like the dental schools used to like, use some of their tools and everything, and it's really interesting, like he used to have when I was in grad school, we had another grad student that looked at your ability to tell a letter on a tile by placing on your tongue versus your fingertip. And like everything has pointed to the tongue being just way more sensitive than we ever realized.


John: It's fascinating. And I wonder, even if you're going to find that the way that fuel to things impacts the perception of flavor, that may also be the case.


Alex: Right. Like, how much aroma are you getting out of that to taste the flavor.


John: Right. And then, of course, the people has their differences in salivation rates and that kind of thing. But the way you chew might be having an impact. So, I mean, it is really really fascinating. It's exciting. I mean, there's a lot to do. The field is very far from.


Alex: Yeah. There's a lot of unanswered questions. But that's good for us, I guess.


John: Yeah, I know. It's fascinating. Yeah. And what also is interesting, you know, is I had Thierry Lageat on the show recently and he was one of the first people to bring sensory into automobile. Automobile will think about that when you get into a car, a new car smell. That's supported on our topic. And that smell of the leather, the experience, the interaction with the feeling. Yeah, it's a huge area.


Alex: Well, yeah, I've been really interested in learning more about sensory outside of food and beverage just because I think sometimes when you kind of expand your perspective on how people are measuring things, because I mean, the sensory in general should be for any product that a consumer makes or a consumer experiences, I'm sorry. And so, like, along with the car thing, I've been wondering, like, okay, well, do bike companies have sensory scientists? I mean, I have yet to find one, but because they've got, you know, endless engineers, endless designers and things, it's like a sensory component of something like a bike is important.


John: Yeah. Now, I think that's right. I actually I think Thierry might have been talking about that a little bit in terms of, there was some issue when bikes there were like male bikes or female bikes where, you talking about that? That was interesting.


Alex: Well, I just found it interesting because I really like cycling and I was just reading and it was a magazine. I don't know. I think it was VeloPress and they had a women's issue and they had an article on how there was a big movement, probably not too long ago when all of the bike companies started making like a women's line. They found out that, like, it wasn't really selling very well and it was kind of hard to pin down what they actually needed to do to make these bikes, you know, better for women, whether it be like a size like stem versus the like seat height, seat posts and all these things of the men's bike. And they actually ended up getting rid of like almost all of those companies don't have a women's line anymore, which is actually ironic. I actually do have a women's bike and a giant has a women's brand called Live, which I have. But I thought it was interesting that it was almost like they didn't really take it farther. They didn't say, like, let's hire someone to try and figure this out. Let's get rid of it, because we can't really sell these. And I don't really know why. I mean, you know, it's not something where it's like, okay, let's gather a bunch of information. And all these women are talking about how maybe the saddle is the problem. Maybe it's like when they're sitting on. Maybe it's not the geometry of the bike. They don't know because I'm sure they've tried, but I'm sure they couldn't figure it out. But it just seems it's like a lot of other things where there's a lot of, like sports science papers that are just on men because like. Women have cycles and that complicates things. So it's like, well, let's take out air. But then like, we're just like, oh I don't know.


John: Well, that's fascinating. Yeah. I saw a bunch of things about that. One bias in research, of course, is a big deal when you've got these. Like one other thing is thinking about all the times that we exclude, you know, pregnant lactating women from study. And there is excluded. And actually, you know, they're maybe having a different experience. And, you know, excluding them from all the research may not actually be the best science. Another example, my wife has research with children with intellectual disabilities. And there's a huge paucity, I mean there's a shortage I believe there's a shortage of research when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities. They usually get disqualified from studies and so no one knows anything about them. So that is that is interesting. Just in terms of scientific bias.


Alex: It's almost like whenever population becomes difficult to study or add an extra layer of error, which I get it. I mean, you don't want as much error in your study, but it's, yeah, it's doing I think that population a disservice because, I mean, we're hungry for information.


John: Yeah, that's interesting. So just kind of wrap this up with the bicycle thread. It does seem like they would definitely benefited from some tools of sensory consumer science. So if you're out there and you're somehow to see this and you're working for a bicycle company.


Alex: I know it's funny. I've often looked I'm like, do you guys think that, like, sensory science is a thing? And it's like nowhere that we found?


John: Yeah. Maybe we need to do a better job. That's what Thierry and I talking about that I do think that sensory scientists need to do a better job advertising outside of food and beverage that we can do, we can help more fields.


Alex: I'm really passionate about that because when I was in high school, I had no idea it existed. I didn't know about it two years into undergrad.


John: Yeah. It's very, you know, just I keep going back to work is irrelevant. You talk about the fact that we have these categories of as food and non-food and the very fact that that's the way we think about it is really revealing that like non-food is you know. What do you think about that right now? Food is a lot of things.


Alex: Well, even sensory science versus like a food industry. Right? Like, everyone filling out some sort of general survey. It's like, what do you work? And I'm like, I guess I should pick agricultural sciences, but I really don't feel like I work in agricultural sciences. But I also don't work in chemistry. I'm not an analytical like there's always this like I don't really know what to put down because it's such a multi discipline field that's so clickable to so many things that's what's really cool about it, obviously. But it's also you can't just put it in a box.


John: Yeah. I mean, it's everywhere. That's why I love it. Just the science of the experience of life. I really think it's great.


Alex: Yeah, that's a good way to explain it.


John: So, okay, so actually we're turning towards the end of the show amazingly. I do want to talk about another shared interest of ours which is data science, because I do think the data science and we talking about AI. Okay, you're going to make predictions. I mean, there are some claims out there about, you know, predictions that you could supposedly make that I think are really far fetched. But in terms of data science facilitating our work, there's definitely value to be had there for sure. So maybe it'd be interesting to hear you talk a little bit about how, you know, you and your colleagues have brought more data science into Mane and the value you're getting. What are some of the tools you're using? You know how would you recommend people get started using data science of sensory scientists.


Alex: I think it's extremely important. I mean, even just like I'm kind of embarrassed to say that when I first started, this was only like two and a half years ago. I started working on some time intensity tests and. So, our descriptive panel, we usually collect data in a conference room, right? So they're not in front of our booths. Of course, I can put them in the booth, but a multitude of things and logistics wise, as far as like what we're running, other tests and things. I was collecting time intensive data on paper. And I was measuring it every single piece of paper, importing the data manually and then analyzing it. And now with data science, because I decided that's not what I wanted to spend my time doing for the rest of my life. I have, with your help, obviously started learning how to program in R, but just being able to now, I only decided to collect it electronically because that seems to be the only reasonable method. And so it's like what used to take me probably like five or six hours. Now it takes me about 10 or 15 minutes, something like that. And it's amazing because it's like. So I'm one of those people were like, I can just zoom in on something and kind of get tunnel vision and if it's a difficult way to do something, it doesn't really occur to me. I just have figured out a way to do it. So I just keep doing it. And so I'm like, back up. It's like you suddenly realize that, wow, I can make this a lot easier. And now this like, really easy version, I can actually make even easier. And so, like, instead of now just automating the analysis, I can automate how the data gets into the analysis. Right? There's all these extra steps where it's like, why didn't I think of this before? Why didn't I try this before? And it means making us incredibly efficient. I mean, sometimes I'm like, okay, I'm finished with this. And like I mean, it just makes it so that I feel like I can just collect as much data as my panelists will take, you know. Yeah. That's my only limitation.


John: And another benefit I find. Maybe you can talk about this, too, is that, you know, especially in a company that's got many different groups around the world and a lot of times, you know, those groups will start to go in their own direction and it'll actually come hard to compare results from different sites. So can you talk a little bit how you're using datasets to collaborate with your colleagues?


Alex: Mane is a company that has locations all over the world, which is what makes it really cool and fascinating, because sometimes that opens up opportunities to study things and look at it from a cultural perspective. But also some issues with that arise where, like we said before, some cultures will experience different tastes or flavor preferences in their mind a lot differently. So that's been a big initiative of the company is just trying to kind of streamline that. So, like, let's make everybody's lemon reference the same ones. Because that makes our data more comparable. But this also brings up our analysis methods where, you know, sometimes you use the same method, but maybe you're not analyzing it the same way. You might like run into issues and that can cause inefficiencies to where it's like, why did we get different P values or why do we have different outputs as far as like statistics for running? And so by making data analysis much more efficient. We can even now use the same scripts, right, because we share them. And it's you know, it's not only making things faster, but it's making us more consistent as a company. So we're understanding exactly what's going on because everything's reproducible and it just makes it so much easier to share kind of the the weight of all of the work that we want to get accomplished. Because now we know what we're all doing, like analytically, and it's just faster to share and it's more efficient. So saying like, okay, well, we don't have maybe like another location wants to run the study, but they don't really have the sensory resources or the booths or the panelists. But we might have that. And then it becomes a lot easier to share that information and just become more aligned as far as what we're doing statistically.


John: Right. Standardization . Yeah. I mean, I see that all the time with my clients, as they get more and data science, you get standardized data collection, you have standardized analysis and standardized reporting. And it's interesting because, you know, there's this story of I guess there's a Buddhist monastery. And when you go to a Buddhist monastery, everybody dresses the same way. Right? And so there was this question from a newcomer, why do you make everybody dresses the same way? And they're like Buddhist monks supposedly said, well, when everyone's dressed the same way, then you can see the differences in people. Right? If this person walks fast and so whatever. And so what's interesting is by standardizing the data collection and analysis reporting, now you can see what's actually going on rather than wondering, like you're saying, I mean, rather than having you know, essentially noise because there are differences that could have been streamlined out, still hanging around. So there's definitely that. And I think it is really exciting when you get into the science team going and everybody's on GitHub and they're pulling scripts and editing, sharing. I mean, it's really collaborative. So, yeah, I've been impressed by how you all have really taken that on.


Alex: Well, it takes it a step like with something like GitHub, it's like I no longer have to email new things with attachments either. It's just there. So it's like it just skips a couple of steps.


John: Like I can pull your script and I can run it, like literally as it would be on your computer. I can see what's wrong and whatever. If there's something wrong or give something cool you want to show me. Yeah. Reproducibility is so important. Yeah. It's really neat. Well, we didn't have time to talk about graph database. Do you wanna say anything quickly about graph databases before we run out of time?


Alex: Yeah. I think just being introduced to them and learning how to use them, I can already see how useful they are. If not only, I mean, I probably started with them like in December of 2019 and I already feel like I can, I have a grip on them and how to use them and see their value. It's just one of those ways where it's kind of like your dreams come true, where now you have all of these different data sets, but you can keep them in one place. It's like having like it's kind of like Google, right? We can just Google anything. And with graph database, it's like a Google for our data we've collected. It doesn't matter what method, doesn't matter what format the data was collected in, you know. All types of numbers, whether it's not numbers, it's comments, it's something like that. And it's all in one place. And I think that for any company that's working with any data, which is most companies.


John: Yeah. But you didn't give a presentation of SSP, Spring Webinar so people can go and find out. We could actually put a link to that in the notes as well. Okay. So we're out of time. How can people follow up with you? What's the best way to contact you?


Alex: I'm very active on most social media. I think I guess the primary ones for me professionally would be probably LinkedIn and Twitter. And I think if you just search Alex Pierce-Feldmeyer, Alex Feldmeyer, it's pretty easy to find.


John: Okay. We'll the links in the show notes. So last question here, is always, what advice do you have for young sensory scientists? Someone just starting out. What would be the advice you would give that person?


Alex: Double major or minor in statistics and programming because if you come into the workplace with that level of knowledge and that expertise. You will be ahead and it will help you a lot.


John: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. Alright, Alex this has been great. Thank you so much for being on the show.


Alex: Thank you for having me.


John: Okay. That's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling a friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.



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