Intercultural Sensory Studies - Bridging Barriers

In this era of globalisation it has become more and more necessary to develop products that are accepted by consumers in both the domestic and the international markets. For this reason, intercultural sensory studies are of great importance. But take care – there are some very special challenges to overcome …

Sweet cornflakes or strong miso soup with spicy pickles, piquant tortillas, or, if one prefers, crunchy croissants, fresh fruits or salty butter-tee – even in this age of globalisation, the wide variety of breakfast eating habits across the world clearly mirrors the pronounced cultural differences that continue to influence consumer preferences. Food product producers who wish to reach the widest possible target group face a big challenge in the development and marketing of their products. In order to bridge these cultural barriers products must be sensorily tested by people with diverse cultural backgrounds. For a variety of reasons, this is an undertaking that is not easy to set up in practice. “ Anne Goldman, from the Canadian sensory research company ACCE International, a  member of the European Sensory Network,  comments that, “In this field, you need to take into consideration religious and cultural beliefs, traditional customs and habits, etiquette, eating habits and experiences, social-economic and political factors, gender-based influences, and – last but not least – linguistic aspects.”Canada has a high number of immigrants and Goldman is confronted with multicultural sensory questions on a national level as well as in her role as  advisor to  companies who want to market their products internationally.

Liguistic barriers

Goldman emphasises that, “When planning sensory studies, one of the first tasks is to bridge language barriers.”  This is often more difficult than might be expected; it is often not easy to translate sensory descriptions one-to-one from one language to another. Goldman uses the Japanese word “Umami” as a good example. It represents the taste impression of glutamate for which there is no clear English or German equivalent. It is translated as “savoury and meaty”, which is unsatisfactory at best.  Even within a culture there can be different dialects, making it difficult to agree upon an exact meaning for particular sensory attributes. This problem is magnified when a term is translated several times, as, say, from German to English, and then from English to the local language of the target or study group. Anne Goldman advises that, “Before starting a sensory study, the terms to be used should be very carefully checked. An appropriate method is to retranslate.”

Fig. 1: People from Western cultures generally understand the Smiley Scale (Hester Cooper et al. 2002) quite well.
However, showing the tongue ...

Linguistic and cultural customs and habits can also strongly interfere with the use of verbal scales used to quantify preferences in intercultural studies. Language can also affect the perception of differences in attribute gradations. Additionally, social-cultural norms may prevent the expression of extreme dislike. Such effects potentially prejudice not only verbal scales; they can also influence abstract numerical scales since seemingly objective measuring instruments may be used quite differently, depending on the cultural background. Asians, who consider it impolite to show strong likes or dislikes, avoid the ends of such scales, and show a pronounced “tendency towards the middle”. And then there are also culturally conditioned tendencies e.g. to avoid certain numbers because it is believed that they  bring bad luck. If symbols are used one needs to be sure that their meaning is understood.

Fig. 2: ... is considered inacceptable in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, or Tonga (Hester Cooper et al. 2002).

Educational differences

Above all, verbal or numerical scales are unsuited when the consumers to be tested are illiterate or have low-level reading skills. In this situation stylised faces have the advantage, that in principal, humans worldwide will understand their emotional impressions. But even this is not as clear as one might suppose – there are subtle differences. In Western cultural circles there is the licking of the lips – mouth with the tongue visible – as a sign of a highly enjoyable taste experience. In Tonga or Asia, however, any showing of the tongue is viewed as disrespectful, and is to be absolutely avoided. Also, special emotional expressions of comic figures, e.g. Snoopy (see illustration), would not necessarily be immediately understood everywhere.

Fig. 3: Only people who are familiar with the comic picture language will understand the Snoopy-scale (Moskowitz, 1985).

Anne Goldman states that,  “In order to ensure that they properly fulfil their function, measuring instruments are best developed and tested within the particular culture.” Alternatively, it can also be worthwhile to use techniques that do not rely on such measuring instruments. These include interviews, behavioural observation, and sorting and classification tasks.    

Differences in sensory perception

Moreover, some studies have shown that sensory perception can vary from one country to another. For example rancid odour or sesame flavour in a product was easily perceived by European panellists, whereas Chinese panellists were not able to  perceive these elements in the same product. Huguette NICOD from the company ADRIANT® SILLIKER mentions various hypotheses to explain this phenomena, such as cultural exposure to the food, and panellist expertise.  Genetic factors such as the structure of the sensory receptors and the way in which the brain integrates the information may play an important part. To conclude, Nicod stresses  the necessity of taking these factors into consideration when conducting studies throughout the world.

Goldman expressly warns against attempting to circumvent the fore-mentioned difficulties by using representatives of a particular ethnic group who have already been living abroad for a long period of time as test subjects. She points out that, “The opinions of people who live outside their native culture can be misleading and often have no connection to the preferences of the people within the original indigenous cultural circle. Besides, native consumers living in foreign countries who are interested and involved in Western culture often have little desire to live according to their own traditions.”


Opens window for sending emailAnne Goldman,  Opens window for sending emailHuguette Nicod


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