MENTION “health food”, and most people think of unappetising fibre-rich, flavour-poor offerings.

Ms Dawn Quah, 27, an assistant flavour/sensory scientist at the Abbott Asia-Pacific Nutrition Research & Development Centre, is determined to correct this assumption.

She says: “Only when consumers enjoy the entire serving of a nutritional product will they then obtain the complete nutritional benefits that enable them to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.”

Officially opened in May, the Abbott Nutrition Research & Development Asia-Pacific Centre — which is located at the Biopolis Research Park — is Singapore’s first nutrition R&D site that focuses on developing scientific nutritional products for infants, children and adults.

Ms Quah works with a team of scientists from various departments to select and optimise the taste of the nutritional products.

“Many people think that health food is not synonymous with good taste, but nutritional products can definitely taste good. And this will encourage consumption.

“My job is to understand the taste preferences among different cultures and nationalities in the Asia-Pacific region so that we can develop suitable flavours for these consumers,” she explains.

However, the development of a product flavour is not as simple as running taste tests.

A good-tasting product should have five flavour leadership criteria:

  • An easily identifiable aroma,
  • Rapid development of a balanced and full flavour,
  • Good feel of the product in the mouth,
  • No “off” notes, and
  • A short, clean aftertaste.
Developing ingredients

At the centre, 15 people, including Ms Quah, underwent a rigorous selection process and training to become certified professional descriptive panellists. These professional panellists, unlike ordinary consumers, are able to profile products by providing specific information about aroma, flavour, texture, appearance and acceptability of products.

The information gathered from the descriptive panel will then be correlated with consumer preference test results to find out the drivers of liking behind consumer preferences for nutritional products.

This enables companies like Abbott Nutrition to understand why consumers like a product, and guide the product development team to develop good-tasting nutritional products. 

As a flavour/sensory scientist, Ms Quah also works closely with the quality assurance and quality control teams to develop raw ingredients and product specifications to ensure consistency in ingredients and products.

“We only accept ingredients that meet our stringent quality control. It is exciting to be part of a team of scientists that develops products that appeal in terms of taste and texture and are of the highest standards,” she says. 

Love for food

Since young, Ms Quah has enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen and has always been keen to try cuisines from different countries and cultures.

The turning point came when she was in secondary school and did a course in food and nutrition. She discovered that her passion was in learning about the science behind food. 

Consequently, she enrolled in the food science and technology course at the National University of Singapore to pursue her interest.

She relished the classes on the sensory evaluation of food, flavour chemistry and nutritional biochemistry so much that she decided to become a flavour/sensory scientist.

As part of the team at Abbott Nutrition R&D for about a year now, she has received extensive training and guidance from fellow scientists in Singapore and the headquarters in United States.

To those wishing to pursue a career as a flavour/sensory scientist, she says: “If you have a curious mind about the science behind the food you eat, this is an extremely rewarding job — especially because you are developing nutritional solutions that will be enjoyed by consumers.”