RDNs as "Sommeliers" for Healthful Food

Woman smelling grapefruit - RDNs as "Sommeliers" for Healthful Food

In the Academy Award-winning movie "Sideways," the lead character Miles describes a wine he is tasting as "Mmm … a little citrus ... maybe some strawberry … passion fruit … and, oh, there's just like the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese." While this description is a comedic poke at Miles' pretentiousness, wouldn't it be great if RDNs could describe nutritious foods with the same passion?

Wine sommeliers utilize a specialized descriptive language called a "lexicon" to promote sales and encourage wine appreciation. Lexicons, standardized sensory vocabularies that facilitate communication across diverse audiences for a food or beverage category, are often used by sommeliers who sometimes lead participants through semi-formal wine tastings using a standardized lexicon. For instance, terms such as mineral or flinty, buttery, oaky and citrus are often used to describe Chardonnay. Many of these terms are taken from the University of California, Davis wine wheel, which notates a 96-term standardized lexicon for the description of wine. A lexicon "wheel" represents an entire product lexicon arranged in hierarchy. Similar categories are grouped near each other and placed on a donut graph resulting in a visual representation of how terms are related.

How Lexicons Can Help Drive Consumer Preference

The use of lexicons has been proven to encourage consumer preference for a particular wine, and research shows that the use of detailed language can also influence food choice. In a restaurant setting, descriptive menu labels such as "succulent Italian seafood filet" (versus "seafood filet") exhibited a halo effect such that customers perceived the food to be better tasting, more satisfying and higher in calories. In a study on apples in a supermarket setting, the use of sensory descriptive labels (such as a "touch of lemon and orange") encouraged consumers to purchase novel varieties.

In addition to wine, there are established lexicons for a wide variety of healthy foods such as apples, beef, cheese, fresh leafy greens, mangos and spices. Some healthy food lexicons, such as the McCormick Spice Wheel for spices and herbs, also have wheels association with them. While lexicons for wine, beer and coffee are well known and promoted heavily by their respective industries, those for healthful foods are lesser known and underutilized; however, this creates an opportunity for RDNs to contribute their knowledge and add their own lexicons to this emerging field. For instance, many supermarket demos of fresh apples overuse common terms such as sweet, tart and crisp, which fail to describe the unique sensory differences among apple varietals. Using an established sensory lexicon for apples would yield more descriptive terms such as cinnamon, aniseed, honey, fibrous and granular.

Encourage Healthful Eating with Food Lexicons

Healthful food lexicons can be crafted into consumer friendly nutrition education materials to promote consumption and increase satisfaction for a wide variety of nutritious whole foods. This is demonstrated by the Sage Fruit Company Spectrum of Apples wheel which arranges twelve apples along a sweet to tart continuum, providing usage examples for each. Using sensory lexicons and tasting wheels, nutrition professionals can hold healthy food tasting events much like sommeliers do for wine. Another application would be to encourage picky eaters to try new, healthy foods that are similar in flavor profile to familiar foods.

Established lexicons rely on agreed upon definitions as well as reference materials to clarify each term. For example, in the lexicon for fresh leafy vegetables, the term "piney" is defined as "the aromatic reminiscent of resinous pine trees; can be medicinal or disinfectant in character." Reference materials are typically cited with great specificity to aid in reproducibility. For instance, the tasting reference for "piney" is Diamond brand raw pine nuts. Interestingly, certain sensory terms may indicate the presence of compounds beneficial to human health. An example of this is "green" flavor, which is reminiscent of freshly cut grass. In leafy green vegetables, "green" flavor indicates the presence of essential free fatty acids.

Using various lexicons and descriptive language, nutrition professionals can describe healthy foods so that they become virtual feasts for the senses. Buckwheat honey is "rich in molasses flavor with figs and prunes." Almonds might be described as "reminiscent of freshly cut lumber with hints of coconut and a touch of cherry candy." Kale is "grassy and viney in character with moderate bitterness and faint background notes of parsley, cabbage, wood, and earth". Equipped with sensory lexicons and a passion for good health, RDNs can truly become "sommeliers" for healthy foods.