Comparing apples to apples: Karen Burgher’s fruit sensory evaluation program adapts to a virtual world

What makes an apple appetizing? Is it the crunch? The tart flavour? What about a strawberry? Is it the bright red colour? To be honest, it’s all of those things. As humans, we have a tendency to gravitate towards foods that tickle our senses. The combination of taste, texture, and smell are essential for a delicious fruit, and it’s these qualities that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Research Biologist Karen Burgher-MacLellan has become an expert in evaluating. Even if she has to do it all while physically distancing during a pandemic.

Getting a taste for plant genetics

An adult strawberry blossom weevil
Karen Burgher-MacLellan, research biologist at Kentville’s Research and Development Centre, holding a bright red apple.

In high school, becoming a veterinarian was Karen’s dream. By enrolling in the Agricultural College in Truro, Nova Scotia, Karen hoped this dream would become a reality. But that all changed in her first year when she took a genetics course on animals and plants. Curiously, it was the genetics of plants and biotechnology that piqued her interest.

“I just went ‘wow, this is the most amazing thing!’” Karen says. “I read all I could on the topic and was inspired to pursue a career in plant genetics. I never looked back.”

Karen set her sights on Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, a region famous for apple and wine production, and began her career at AAFC’s Kentville Research and Development Centre (KRDC). As time went on, she started supporting the fruit tree breeding program, which eventually led to an interest in learning what makes fruit delicious and how it’s evaluated.

She could have never imagined that the plant genetics seed that started growing during her university days would sprout into some of the biggest discoveries of her career.

Making sense of fruit evaluation

A sensitive subject: What is fruit sensory evaluation?

Fruit sensory evaluation is a process in which trained panelists evaluate the visual appearance, taste, texture, and aroma of different varieties of fruit before they are released by the AAFC fruit breeding program. These fruits include apples, strawberries, raspberries, and more.

Soon after Karen began working at KRDC, a program for fruit sensory evaluation caught her eye. At first, evaluations were completed on-site at the KRDC by Karen and her team. Each panelist was provided with a variety of different samples and a paper ballot, usually taking 60 to 80 minutes to evaluate six to eight samples. The data from these evaluations was then analyzed by an onsite statistician.

The sensory evaluation program was working smoothly, but when Karen learned about a specialized computer program, she knew it could be even better. This program, from a Canadian company called Compusense, made it easy for Karen and her team to conduct quick and efficient evaluations. It aligned perfectly with their needs, and she had the sensory evaluation program up and running like a well-oiled machine.

Until a once-in-a-life event upset the applecart in March 2020.

“When the pandemic hit, I realized we couldn’t do in-person sensory panels anymore,” Karen says. “That was a huge part of our fruit evaluation program, and I didn’t want our 2020 and 2021 harvests to go to waste.”

Not only was Karen about to lose nearly two years’ worth of harvests, but the momentum she’d gained with the team was starting to dwindle. They needed a solution. And fast.

Karen tried to find help in the Compusense program. She knew there had to be a way it could support virtual evaluations; she just had to figure out how. Then she learned something surprising: Compusense was also working hard to adapt to the virtual world. Their current program just needed some adjustments for a new remote sensory application. Adjustments that would change the face of fruit sensory evaluation forever.

Taking sensory evaluation to the next level

An adult strawberry blossom weevil
A virtual evaluation of an apple slice.

As the world was swarmed with VPNs and video chatting apps, Compusense was developing the “Home Use Test” protocol. This protocol found panelists picking up their samples from the KRDC and completing their evaluation online through a secure web portal.

The new system for sensory evaluation uses ratings in a survey based on panelists’ preferences for appearance, flavor, texture, and taste. It also uses a “check all that apply” method in which panelists check off whether they tasted red apple (sweet, ripe) or green apple (sour, unripe), or whether the texture was crisp, juicy, crunchy, mealy, or soft. With this easy-to-use survey, the panelists require less training, and Karen has had a lot of new panel recruits.

Karen has been impressed with the results so far. Since the onset of the pandemic, she has completed 19 remote sensory evaluation panels with a pool of about 20 panelists, double what she did with in-person evaluations.

“The new program gives me a lot of information that is easy to understand,” Karen says. “We’re working towards taking the guess work out of why a consumer finds an apple or a strawberry amazing – is it a unique aroma, a certain texture attribute or a combination of several attributes?”

Finding a unique way to work during a global pandemic has allowed Karen to continue important research as part of the fruit evaluation program. With this success, she has found a long term solution to sensory evaluation and plans to use these new tools when she returns to an in-person work environment. More importantly, Karen will always have an answer to the age-old question: “How do you like them apples?”


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