Increasing fruit consumption is vital to the growth and sustainability of the citrus industry, and information on consumer preferences and drivers for purchase is important in that process. In general, good external appearance will prompt consumers to buy, while enjoyable flavour/texture will encourage them to repeat purchases. The ultimate goal is for consumers to have a great citrus eating experience that they want to repeat.
Flavour is a complex combination of taste, aroma, and mouth-feel sensations (e.g. texture and juiciness) that are perceived at the same time by the consumer. In citrus fruit, the basic taste is determined mainly by sugars, acids, bitter components, phenolics, and limonoids, while aroma and mouth-feel sensations are mostly due to volatiles, pectins, cellulose, and hemicellulose. Sensory trials based on tasting panels and/or consumer acceptability, together with market surveys to understand consumer behaviour, are valuable tools to determine flavour quality and specific consumer preferences.
Australian consumer flavour preferences were evaluated in 2013 through a large‐scale consumer sensory evaluation, as part of recently completed Horticulture Innovation Australia project CT 12004*. Taste panels included early and mid-season Navel oranges (720 consumers in Melbourne and Perth) and early and mid-season Afourer mandarins (480 consumers in Melbourne). Besides supporting the use of the ‘Australian Citrus Standard’ (based on BrimA) as a criteria more in line with consumer flavour acceptability, the results showed that the most important attributes for consumers when shopping for both types of fruit were good taste/flavour, followed by freshness, juiciness, health benefits, and sweet/sour balance (Figure 1). Flavour attributes were notably more important than other traits such as price/value for money, no seeds, being blemish-free, skin colour, and ease of peeling.
These results confirm overseas studies where five different surveys on consuming fresh oranges and mandarins across various cities in the UK, USA, and Israel were conducted between 1996 and 2015. The studies showed that the quality attributes most consumers considered highly important were flavour/sweetness, freshness, juiciness, and appearance/skin quality, whereas traits such as fruit size, colour, ease of peeling, no seeds, and packaging were generally less important.
In general, orange and mandarin consumers seem to prefer fruit with a balanced and intense flavour (i.e. not insipid, with high sweetness, moderate to low acidity levels, and low bitterness), fresh, and with high juiciness. In one of the surveys involving 300 consumers in the UK, 98% of respondents said that they used past experience to help them decide which citrus fruit to buy, compared with 22% who were influenced by promotional material.
In contrast, little is known about Asian consumers’ citrus preferences. This is a major and growing market destination for Australian citrus exports. A 2014 survey of Australian Murcott mandarins shipped to China as part of project CT12023*, showed that consumers surveyed in Shanghai and Beijing preferred the appearance and lower acid flavour of the non-coated fruit over conventionally wax-treated fruit. It is important to develop a good understanding of specific consumer requirements in different export markets for both external and internal citrus fruit attributes, including flavour quality. This will help growers and marketers to make smart decisions on fruit maturity levels and quality standards in their shipments, better target their fruit to specific markets, and explore opportunities to develop strategies aimed to differentiate, add value, and ensure premium prices for their produce.
As fruit maturity at harvest is a major factor determining citrus flavour quality, it is also important to understand and manage the sources of variability in fruit maturity and composition, which include fruit location in the tree, the variability between trees, rootstock, fruit size, tree age, growing location, and seasonal/climate differences both within and among years. For example, NSW DPI Citrus Developments Officers Steven Falivene and Andrew Creek sampled fruit from Sunraysia and the Riverina, which was and analysed at NSW DPI Ourimbah in 2015 and 2016. The fruit showed differences (on average) in BrimA of up to 28% for Navel oranges and up to 21% for Afourer mandarins between fruit harvested from the outside and higher part of the canopy compared with fruit from the inside and lower part. A tasting panel at our NSW DPI sensory facilities at Ourimbah found differences in overall flavour.
The opportunity to expand this type of research to other key locations, citrus varieties and harvest times throughout the season would allow decision support tools such as maturity curves per variety/region to be developed to help growers better and more easily determine and predict maturity rates and harvest times in their orchard blocks.
The above results reinforce the fact that flavour does matter, and that offering consumers a consistent internal high quality is vital to meet their expectations. This, in turn, will promote repeated purchases and increased consumption and profitability both in domestic and export markets. The postharvest and sensory quality team at NSW DPI Ourimbah and the NSW DPI production citrus team are seeking your feedback on the concept of developing a project to better determine Asian citrus fruit taste preferences and fruit quality variability to improve export demand and fruit prices.
Contact Dr Roberto Marques, NSW DPI at Ourimbah, (02) 4348 1928, email@example.com
*Projects CT12004 (‘Australian Citrus Quality Standards Program – Stage 2’) and CT 12023 (‘Enhancing the export performance of Australian mandarins by improving flavour quality’) were funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia using the citrus industry levy (CT 12004), funds from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland (CT 12023), and funds from the Australian Government.