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Nese Yurttas - Alternative Reality

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Nese Yurttas has worked in the field of sensory and consumer science for twenty years including the past fifteen years for Cargill, where she has built Cargill’s sensory capabilities in North America into a world-class capability. Nese leads a global community of sensory practice to build best practices and knowledge across the Globe. Across such a diverse product mix as Cargill’s, Nese must lead a team of scientists using expert sensory knowledge to identify the right sensory methods and experiments to achieve the business strategic needs and critical success factors.

Her capability development and project work have helped Cargill develop new products and ingredients such as the Truvia® Table Top (TT) Sweetener and Eversweet Stevia Sweetener from a fermentation source. She lead all sensory panels for the sweetener business and co-developed two patents, one of which resulted in the successful commercializing of the first natural TT sweetener Truvia® in the U.S. Nese’s deep sensory knowledge, contributions to the knowledge of Food Ingredient taste and flavor, team leadership and drive for business excellence has helped Cargill achieve its sensory business goals.

Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: Nese, welcome to the show.

Nese: Thank you, John. It's a pleasure to be in the show today. Thank you.

John: Okay, wonderful. Thanks. So I think that probably a lot of our listeners will have met you at conferences or maybe just at various events. But if you could go through and take us through the history of how you ended up at Cargill and your current role, I think that would be a great place to start.

Nese: Yeah, my pleasure. Sure. So, yeah, I have started my sensory journey in Land O'Lakes, actually, I was hired here as an intern in 2001, and I was lucky to help in the sensory lab, and working with them is a big pleasure and I learned a ton actually practically experience in sensory science and I actually accepted a job with them after my internship. And I worked there for five years kind of supporting their spreads business. And it was my first time leading a panel, for example, at Land O'Lakes, and also involved with other panels, consumer testing versus the description panel. So after that, I got a really good opportunity at Cargill so one of my friends suggested that I should actually apply to this position. Not that I was looking for a job, but then I had an interview. It was very interesting. They didn't have a big team, and they just wanted to develop their sensory and work on their sweetener business. So I joined Cargill, and it was probably the right time, the right place that I had this big project. It was such a joyful project to work on. Creating the first natural sweetener, which we call Truvia Table Top sweetener. So I was involved in the product development for processing to the sensory testing, the consumer testing, and all that. And we successfully launched a product three years after I joined the company in 2007. And since then, my team grew, and then we started pretty much supporting all our businesses, from food ingredient businesses, from oils to cocoa to starches, sweeteners, texturizers all the way through the protein business that we have. So now, right now, my team is located in two different places. We have three different sensory labs and kitchens to support all these businesses that we have. And I'm very proud of my team and what we have accomplished so far. So, yeah, it's been a quite satisfying journey so far.

John: That's great. One topic that we kind of share an interest in is methodology. And I think you've been at the forefront, actually, in developing and implementing a lot of new methods. So can you take us through your kind of methodological journey, the kind of key changes that you've seen over your time in sensory, please?

Nese: Yeah, thanks for asking that, John. When I first started, of course, we started with typical methodologies that we use still to date, right? All the descriptive panels that we use to understand the ingredients and how the flavor profile is for that ingredient and how it's going to function as a finished product and what the consumer experience will be. So starting with the high-intensity sweeteners, specifically, most of our methodologies from different testings to typical QDA or DA spectrum, whatever your company is using, it's been working at the beginning of the journey, and we created really good products out there. And the high-intensity sweetener has exploded and we have now so many different offerings, even in the natural sweetener place, that every single product out there is getting closer to sugar and they're all getting closer to each other. So some of our regular methodologies started not working very well. We could not quantify the differences that our product developers are experiencing on the benchtop or our customers are experiencing, and sometimes our consumers, too. So then we were looking, okay, what else we can do? It's not just the intensities anymore. It's the whole experience. It's like the holistic approach, right? It's the temporal profile. How it hits, the sweetness hits in your mouth and the onset, and then how fast it goes to the peak sweetness, how much it stays there, and the linger and the other aftertaste attributes. So over the years, we started adopting other methodologies, not necessarily always quantitative, but with the qualitative approach. Looking at the quality of sweetness, how it changes and compared to sugar where it stands. Those methodologies helped our product development teams to create and to understand what they need to tweak in that particular ingredient and I think we're on the right path, but we are still open to other techniques. As you may imagine, everybody loves to see the spider chart. It's really easy for them to understand. They like the intensities. They like the significant differences and when you give them something qualitative, even it's just showing the temporal profile is not as intuitive as TDSS are harder to explain to our customers and have them understand what that means. So still looking and trying to combine several methodologies and still trying to innovate in this area and working with our vendors, too. So that helped a lot that we adopted what we call sweeteners quality methodology. So it's an evolving area for the ingredient business, I suppose.

John: Yeah. It's always interesting how complex the sweetener space is. Right? You tend to think, okay, sweet not sweet, but it's really way more than that.

Nese: Yeah, you tell me about it. It's way more than, John. And I was just telling you, I guess at the beginning of before the recording that we have not yet have developed an ingredient that high-intensity sweetener that can be used solely in a beverage, I should say. I'm sure there are beverages out there, but not as good as they should receive beverages. But we are getting close. We are getting closer. I'm hopeful that we're going to have more products available in the future.

John: Right. As far as more product goes, too, I think personalization, customization, that's kind of the future of food science in many ways. First off, is it true when you say sugar in this particular case, you mean table sugar? Do you mean sucrose specifically or...

Nese: Right, sucrose, definitely. That's another thing that I know in the consumer language could be everything from sweeteners to honey to sucrose, your table sugar. When I say sugar, it's table sugar, correct.

John: Yeah. And would you say that is, generally speaking, the gold standard that nothing has really been demonstrated to be superior in terms of the broad applications, in terms of delivering the source of experience that consumers like that are in fact, something close to a gold standard? You don't see something better being developed anytime soon?

Nese: I haven't seen that. I'm not sure if there's anything better than sugar but sugar is also the reference for your sweetness, right? Especially for the train panelists. You use different concentrations of sucrose that will give you the intensity on the line scale that you use. So, yeah, that's true that sugar is the gold standard as of today.

John: If you're not able to share this, it's fine. But roughly speaking, how many sweetener products does Cargill make? I mean, is there an enormous line of possible sweeteners And your clients come to you and they want a specific sweetener to fit inside some matrix, some flavor matrix, what is that process look like?

Nese: Yeah, we do, especially our stereo portfolio is pretty big. You may have heard the body side A, which is the sweetest part of the stevia extract. We do have different concentrations of what we call RA 80, RA 95, RA 50. So depending on your sugar reduction, we can give you whatever sweetness works best in your portfolio. And besides that, just one single body side or steviol glycoside sweetness. We also have different mixes of sweetness that we can target for your application. Some work better in a dairy application versus some work better in carbonated soft drink application or your bakery application. So we have actually what we call ria tech portfolio that actually has a different number of steviol glycosides from the body side A, M, D, there are so many of them out there, but M and D are the best ones right now that's available. Besides that, of course, our corn syrup and sugar and our nutritive sweeteners. Also, we have a lot of polyols like erythritol, one that is also truvia tabletop that brings up the sweetness and makes it more sugar-like. So, yeah, we have a wide, big portfolio of sweeteners that can be customized for our customers.

John: Yeah, that's fascinating. And something I think it's just worth touching out, we're talking about before the show is there are these kind of freestyle vending machines. I think it's the Coca-Cola brand vending machine. This kind of touchscreen, how far away do you think we are as a society from a world where you go up to a vending machine, maybe you're in the system as a frequent customer, maybe you know some things about your time of day. Did you get a customized experience? Do you see that as something that will start to become more and more commonplace? I mean, it sounds like, with his portfolio, the technology exists. What are your thoughts on that kind of question?

Nese: Yeah, I think we're pretty close, and I would love to see this kind of option more available. Right now, when you go to those vending machines, it's pretty much sugar and other sweeteners, non-nutritive, artificial, or natural. There are not even natural sweeteners. Right now, the ingredients are there. I guess we just have to make sure that we can put more options for our consumers. I personally love those machines. When I go to the movie theater, I like to mix my beverage with sugar and also an artificial one so I don't get a lot of calories. But I still can enjoy my drink and not have to deal with a lot of sweetness lingering. But I'm educated. I understand when I mix it with 50 versus 70, 30, or whatever, I will know what it should taste like. I think in the future we should see these more customized beverages, customized foods, like even the salt, right? Like, I love chips, but it's too salty. Can I ask for house salted chips, for example? I mean, if the technology is there, the ingredients are there. We just have to think about that and just put it together, I suppose. I think all the ingredients are there, just have to cook the food or just for customers to order the right food for themselves.

John: Now, I think it's fascinating. I think that you're right. But we talk about smart packaging. It could be, you get a bag of chips, maybe not all the salt gets released into the bag. Maybe you can choose. There's some little interface you can choose and then you can shake the bag and you can have the chips where you like them. I think this can become more and more important, too. As we move into the Metaverse. We move into augmented reality. What will once be a freestyle machine, where it's a kind of industrial machine mixing drinks at scale will gradually get scaled-down and be in people's houses. My wife and I have a soda stream kind of sparkling, something that sparkles our water for us and we've started to enjoy this kind of mixins. We can make ginger ale or we can make whatever by adding. But I think it's going to get more and more personalized and eventually I'm sure that freestyle experience will come into our home and we'll be able to make whatever we want powered by AI. So let's talk about another topic we are both interested in, which is the kind of alternative proteins and some of the challenges there. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about plant-based protein, some of the challenges, some of the lessons you've learned working in this area?

Nese: Great. Yeah, that's a very hot area, actually. And we've been working in this area for about two years now. And oh, my gosh, the speed of that is incredible. It has so much and so fast. I remember even personally when there's a vegan or plant-based, like burger patties. They didn't even taste or smell or look like anything. But right now, it's even harder for you to distinguish in a burger built if it's plant-based versus real meat. So I think we came along with the technology with the texture, texture, in this case, the way that it feels in your mouth, the same feeling that when you're biting into a beef patty. So I think the technology is great and the protein sources as well. I know there's a lot of work going on right now, especially for Cargill. I would say how we can make non-proteins have more like neutral flavors, not a lot of typical flavors that they bring from their sources. If it is pea versus soy and make it cleaner and make it more functional and use other ingredients. And also the equipment, of course, the extrusion is big in this area too, and if you go to more like chicken based plant protein. So it's evolving really fast and I am impressed how many great products we can really develop. And there are really good products out there, too. If you go out to the grocery stores now, you will be impressed how many different brands are there, and they all have different types of appearances and the color is one thing that was really a challenge when we first started this. It's really hard to mimic that red color like the raw meat will have. And then when you cook it, it turns Brown. So you need to have that technology that your sample needs to look red enough. And when you cook it, it should turn the color to brown. We have to work on that a lot to make sure that we have that transition of color and the consumer expectation of it looks like meat, too.

John: Right.

Nese: It's a very interesting and very fast-paced area, but very satisfying to the way that it develops and the consumer reaction to it. I think it's getting to be more and more valued and bought by consumers.

John: And it has some parallels, interestingly to your work on sweeteners, right? Because in the sweetener area, you have this kind of gold standard of sucrose and when it comes to these alternative proteins, you have some sort of historical gold standards, whether it's chicken or beef or whatever it is that people are expecting, whether or not that's what they like or they're just what they're used to. Have there been some lessons you've been able to take from your work on alternative sweeteners and bring them over to your work on alternative proteins, some ways of thinking about these problems that were generalizable?

Nese: Yeah, exactly. And especially in the methodology base that we kind of understand right now. Again, the holistic approach and using different methodologies, this area is also now right now is getting to be too crowded, and there are so many products, and everything is going to be so similar to each other. So all the difficulties that we face with the sweetness when we have so many different sweeteners out there, it's pretty much the same thing that you could apply the learnings, the holistic approach to different methodologies, especially in the sensory train panel area. So that helps tremendously with our knowledge and having other tools in place for products such that and also the texture is a new thing. I guess it's not that the beverages, the biggest problem was the mouthfeel or the biggest hurdle was the mouthfeel which is such a subtle thing. It's really hard to quantify with plant-based products. It's all about texture, and that's so big that really takes longer or takes more training and understanding what the consumers are really looking for. It's not just juiciness anymore. When you put it in your mouth, how it bites and how much it can integrate into your mouth so there are a lot of other hurdles So it comes with that. But yeah, definitely having an area of expertise helps us to move our methodologies to a new area for sure.

John: Okay, and then just talking about alternative proteins, we're talking about this before the show and again, I don't know if this is starting to be on the cutting edge and you can't share stuff or if you are, but just as much as you want to talk about this, I'm interested in some of the insect proteins that are coming. I've had grasshopper cookies and that kind of thing. It's okay. Honestly, it tastes fine. It's just I don't like the idea. Do you have some thoughts to share on insect protein and some of them, I mean, there are some good qualities from nutritionally.

Nese: That's for sure. Right now, we are not looking into the insect proteins as much as the other plant-sourced proteins. But I know Cargill is looking into every kind of source and I know that's in the books. I guess personally, just calling it insect protein starts making you think about the bugs themselves and it's not appetizing, right? You have to be a little bit careful how you're I guess, putting it out there and it's formed in a patty or whatever. You're not going to be you're able to think about, oh, it's a pea or soy or it's an insect, but definitely, it's a good resource. I think it can bring some of these good flavors. That animal-oriented flavors I guess that might be a good option in the future and the supply chain will be really interesting.

John: Yeah. Right. That's right. Another one, of course, is lab-grown meat. Lab-grown protein is another thing that's coming, right?

Nese: That's very true and it's amazing and that's pretty much identical because they use the animal cells to make that up. Probably they have other challenges in terms of processing and scaling that up. That's a huge effort, I suppose. But that is going to be indistinguishable in terms of sensory attributes, I would say. But in terms of nutritive and nutrition, it will be probably different. At least that's what I have read so far. So that will have maybe a different impact on the industry but in terms of sensitivity, I think that will be a pretty good choice or alternative. But then they're going to have their own challenges.

John: That's interesting.

Nese: Yeah.

John: Okay. Actually, I was reading about lab-grown cocoa beans, but I guess they're trying to make chocolate in a lab now.

Nese: Interesting.

John: Yeah. So I guess, I don't know, maybe everything will be from a lab at some point. We'll see. Okay, so let's see, as far as other topics, I think we mentioned in your bio your role as a leader that you've been managing now a relatively large group, and I think something we don't talk enough about on the show is leadership and how important it is to manage your team and to impart knowledge to your team. So what are some of the lessons you've learned as you've grown your team and how you've managed to really just run that team successfully?

Nese: Yeah. Thanks for asking this question, John. I think this is really important that what we do here. I know I'm leading the team and my name is out there, but actually, I owe it to my team. If my team is not successful, I'm not successful. I have such an efficient team and team members and I have seen this in the sensory field in the past as well with Land O'Lakes, too, all the sensory people that I worked with so far, they're really good team players. We all help each other. We are all in it together. I have a big joy when I go into the lab and start serving our panelists. It's really nice to have that feeling again and get connected again and then see how much my team members, how much work they put into. All these great things we do for our company and for our customers and I think the biggest thing again is just trying to keep them engaged and listen and understand their pain points and be with them and really start building that empathy with them and at the same time grow them to give them opportunities. I think that's one thing that I struggled with in the past. Again, being a leader, you're always out there talking to customers, going to these meetings, and then you see that your team members are not having the opportunity to show themselves or having the experience of talking about the results. They're all scientists. We love data. We love to talk about the details. But when your audience is different than how you're going to relate that sensory information, the results, and what it means for the business, that's a different conversation. And they need to practice that. It's not just being at the meeting and listening, but really being able to communicate these results in their terminology. It comes with experience and quickly, also, I would like you to just tell me, like during Covid, like my team, oh, my gosh, I have so dedicated team members. They were eager to go back to the lab. They were eager to start doing their panel. I mean, even, of course, the safety number one priority for Cargill for all of us, but they just love that. I mean, you miss that connection with people, and the sensory is also a lot of people management. Panels, keeping them happy again. If you have a really good member who coordinates these panels, my panel leader knows the names of the panels, like the employee panel. They come and look for like that is Kerry, I like to say Hi to her whenever she's not available. So that kind of relationship-building is not everybody's I guess a little to do that. But anyhow, the bottom line is I owe it to my team. I cannot do this myself. It's my team.

John: Yeah, I love sensory. I think sensory really has people with good attitudes, and I always get along with sensory scientists. Okay, well, I think this has been great, Nese. I think especially interesting to think about as we move in, we're moving into kind of an alternative reality as a society and that we have now all of these challenges. It's actually really interesting to think about how in virtual or alternative augmented reality, we're trying to create an alternative reality that resembles the current reality. And it seems like that problem is very structurally the same as you with your alternative sweeteners, trying to recreate that experience or your alternative proteins, trying to create that experience that we're going to have, many of these problems, I think are going to come up again and again as we move into the metaverse, as we're trying to recreate the experience of life in a virtual space that we share that I think there's a very bright future for many of the methodologies you mentioned because they're just going to get used again at a larger scale, I think as we move into this new future. So before we wrap up, I'd like to get your advice for young sensory scientists. I mean, you've seen a lot now imagine you're going back here, just beginning your internship at Land O'Lakes, what advice would you give yourself or what advice would you give to a young person nowadays?

Nese: Yeah, that's a good question, too. So I think one thing that I could suggest is just be curious, ask questions, and don't be afraid of sounding silly. Growing up in my culture, I learned that you have to ask smart questions. There's not such a thing as smart questions So just make sure that you are in there and asking questions and curious about what's going on. Not just sensory either. Like I have so much joy in this big product, big team meetings, understanding what the processing is, what the supply chain does, what marketing does. Understanding the whole concept will only help you while you are in it and why you're trying to make this food taste like whatever, and then that will just only help you. So yeah, don't be afraid. Just go and just dive in and work hard and don't be afraid of talking about yourself and your accomplishments either. That's another thing that I learned, which was really hard again, growing in a different culture that you say, oh yeah, I did this, I did that. So it's okay for you to celebrate your successes and failures And the other thing I can say is also like being vulnerable, that's okay, we're all human beings. We make mistakes. Just acknowledge that may have been a mistake and just move on. You can just grow with your mistakes. I still have a lot of things that I need to do better at and I'm working on it and it's not an ending journey and the success comes from that.

John: I totally agree with that. Yeah, you got to put yourself out there. I make mistakes all the time but that's how you learn.

Nese: We all do.

John: Yeah. that's great. Nese, this has been wonderful. How can people get in touch with you? Suppose someone has a follow-up question maybe they like to work with Cargill or they would like to meet you and connect with you, what are good ways for them to find you?

Nese: Yeah, thank you. I have my profile in LinkedIn. I think that would be the easiest way for people to get connected with me. Once they reach out to me through LinkedIn I can definitely connect with them back and yeah, so that will be the best way.

John: Okay. That sounds great. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Nese. This has been a pleasure.

Nese: Yeah, thank you, John. Thanks for inviting me.

John: Okay, that's it. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.


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