Last Updated on April 6, 2021 by Novotaste
The non-governmental International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has unveiled a new standard for substantiating sensory claims on consumer goods, including food and beverages.
The development of ISO 20784:2021 comes in response to manufacturers’ bold advertising claims made to stand out in a crowded marketplace. It gives guidance on when and how to validate claims with testing and analysis.
“A range of characteristics – appearance, taste, odor and texture – may require scientific support.” Christine VanDongen, project leader of ISO/TC 34/SC 12 and fellow at the sensory center at the University of Minnesota, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“A company might want to put on their packaging ‘now with real butter flavor,’ which could be determined with either an analytical sensory test, descriptive analysis panel, or with a consumer test.
However, claims like “fresh” or “tastes great” are hard to define, says VanDongen. These are therefore less likely to be disputed.
“Use of the standard provides assurance that product messages are supported with evidence and will ultimately protect consumers from potentially misleading messaging that has no scientific basis,” she notes.
Consumers’ perception of a product’s performance or consumers’ affective responses to a product (consumers prefer X) might also need to be substantiated.
When the standard applies
The types of sensory claims that need scientific support is usually driven by the company’s assessment of the risk of being challenged. Will it be challenged by a competitor?
This all depends on the company’s assessment of the risk of being challenged, how competitive the market is, what government/regulatory and advertising requirements there are, and what countries use as authority over determining product characteristics.
Some companies require sensory testing to support a message “now with more bacon flavor” or “easy to prepare,” VanDongen says.
“Again, whether there is sensory testing done to support these consumer-directed messages depends on the company’s assessment of risk. It’s the lawyers who decide what consumer messages they are willing to use and what support is required.”
Some of the most challenging claims are health claims and claims targeted to children. VanDongen attributes this hurdle to the high amount of regulation in the US and Europe over health claims.
“Companies that make and sell [health or childrens’] products are very cautious about making claims about their products,” she stresses. “Children’s products have a stricter set of criteria for messaging.”
The effect on the industry
ISO’s standards are voluntary, so not directly enforceable. However, VanDongen sees strong potential in bringing awareness to the industry.
“I think at a minimum [the new sensory claims standard] will make people in the retail food industry pause when they want to make a claim about their F&B’s sensory properties or consumers preferences.”
“A company might think twice about making the claim ‘the crispiest chip’ or ‘the best chocolate flavor’ when they consider what type of support they might need to provide to withstand a challenge.
Challenging the competition
VanDongen details that in the US, there is a long history of the large food and beverage companies making claims about consumer’s preference for their products over the competitors.
“One of the earliest was the Pepsi challenge, where consumers tasted Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola blind and picked the one they preferred. Or Papa John’s claim ‘Better ingredients, better pizza.’ This claim was disputed in courts.”
“Wendy’s did a large consumer preference test to learn if consumers preferred Wendy’s natural-cut french fries with sea salt over McDonald’s fries – and consumers did prefer Wendy’s.
Wendy’s followed the ASTM E1958 guidelines for consumer preference testing for claims.”
Harmonizing the guidance
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) E1958 document was first published in 1998. It was the first document to provide guidance to sensory professionals confronted with claims testing.
The ASTM E1958 document is what FMCG companies follow as the standard for meditating sensory claims disputes, explains VanDongen.
“Large food companies in the US are very cognizant of the risks associated with making claims about their products. The ASTM E1958 guide is widely used by them,” she notes.
Moreover, the DIN (the German standards organization) has used it as a basis for their document on sensory claims; organizations in the UK have used the E1958 as the basis for presentations on claims; Canada’s guidelines on claims drew heavily from the ASTM’s E1958.
Years in the making
This new ISO standard is consistent with ASTM’s E1958 principles, and complements it, notes VanDongen. She wrote the first draft of the ISO 20784:2021 and subsequently worked on it for three years with international colleagues.
She was also involved in writing some sections of ASTM’s E1958 and continues to work on the E1958 document as it is revised.
“The ISO standard covers some issues in more depth than E1958 and was written with more global inputs. Both documents cover guiding principles, or the best practices researchers must follow if they embark on a claims test,” she says.
ISO 20784 provides classifications and examples, highlights any special issues associated with testing and features case studies and references. It was published by ISO’s subcommittee SC 12, Sensory analysis, of technical committee ISO/TC 34, Food products.
By Missy Green