While not quite as popular as the modern-day darling of the cookie kingdom, Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal cookies remain a classic choice among cookie-lovers. Unlike some of the more elaborate chocolatey, fruity, nutty, or peanut-buttery options on the shelf, Oatmeal cookies remain more grounded in an image of simplicity, old-fashioned goodness, and the sweet smell of days gone by. They also generally offer a slightly better nutritional profile, with slightly less fat, calories, and sugar, and slightly more fibre than many other packaged favorites.
Until the early 1900s, oats were not a standard part of the North American diet. The use of oat grain as a food ingredient originated in the British Isles and had been a staple there for many centuries. As European immigrants made their way onto North American soil, so to did the custom of using oat grain in porridge, puddings, and oat cakes.
From that point, the mainstream introduction of oats to the North American diet had a lot to do with the Quaker Oats Company who made the wise decision of putting recipes for porridge and cookies on its boxes. These recipes circulated widely, and oatmeal cookies were soon a common baked good in the household.
Nowadays it may be more common to find Oatmeal cookies in the grocery aisle than emerging from your grandma’s oven, but they are still a popular choice.
This research aims to explore differences in the flavour and sensory profiles of various brands of packaged plain oatmeal cookies to determine which aspects of the cookies are key drivers of liking.
Methods & Materials
The research recruited 50 females between the ages of 25 and 54 to our Central Location Testing facility in the Greater Toronto Area. All were principal grocery shoppers who purchase and consume packaged plain oatmeal cookies regularly. The test included two National brands and two Private label brands, all purchased at local grocery stores.
Each participant received two samples of each cookie, served on a plastic plate labeled with a 3-digit code. The samples were served unbranded, one at a time, in varied order. Participants were asked a series of detailed hedonic and ‘just about right’ questions regarding the appearance, flavour, and textural profiles of the cookies.
While there was no solid statistical winner among the four brands, one product, Brand C, stood apart as a clear directional winner on all key measures of product performance including Overall Liking, Purchase Intent, and Quality. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1 – Top 2 Box Purchase Intent, Overall Liking, and Overall Quality
Where Brand C truly stood apart from the others was for its textural profile. Not only did it have the best score for liking of the overall texture. It also was the only product to meet our hurdle of 70% “Just Right” for the level of hardness and crunchiness. (See Figure 2)
Figure 2 – Percentage of Respondents Rating Attributes “Just Right" and Liking of Texture
Two of the products were much too hard and crunchy, while one was too soft and not crunchy enough. Only Brand C sat agreeably in the middle – not too soft, not too hard, but just right. (See Figure 3)
Figure 3 – Perceptions of Hardness
The two products with the lowest scores for liking of the texture actually had opposite textural profiles. Brand A was too soft and Brand D was too hard. The battle between hard and crunchy or soft and chewy cookies is a long-standing debate among hard-core cookie lovers. Texture is a highly differentiable attribute for consumers and is often associated with food quality (fresh or stale for instance) and can also influence taste perception.
In addition to textural quality, another important driver of liking and the key weakness for Brand A was the level of oatmeal flavour. Only 46% of respondents found Brand A’s level of oatmeal flavour to be “Just Right,” well short of the hurdle of 65% for this attribute. Almost half of respondent found the flavour too weak. (See Figure 4)
Figure 4 – Perceptions of Oatmeal Flavour
The most obvious problem with this of course, is that a plain oatmeal cookie has a very simple flavour profile – there is really one critical factor and that’s oatmeal. For a product based on very few ingredients, the predominant flavour must be at the very least, perceptible.
Among our participants, the features driving their purchase of oatmeal cookies were simply because ‘it’s a taste they enjoy’ and ‘the quality of ingredients’. These simple ideas far outweighed other factors such as kid-pleasing, brand trust, or value. (See Figure 5)
Figure 5 – Most Important Reason for Purchasing Oatmeal Cookies
Conclusions and Implications
The objective of this research was to investigate the sensory performance of plain, packaged oatmeal cookies. We included both national and private label brands and recruited female consumers residing in one geographical area – the Greater Toronto area.
Within this framework, we see that there are clear differences in the sensory profiles and likeability of the different products, driven mainly by strength of flavour and texture. The brand that was liked best delivered the optimal degree of crunchiness and strength of oatmeal flavour.
Relative to other packaged cookie varieties, oatmeal cookies are often positioned as a mature and healthy proposition (as opposed to youthful and indulgent). Of course, not all will conform to this; some are made more for kids or have added cues of decadence. But generally speaking, they are a simple segment of the cookie category. But with this simplicity also comes a not-so-simple challenge for product developers. Sometimes it’s easier to achieve expectations when you have added novelties such as icing, nuts, or sprinkles. For a stripped-down product like this one, consumer expectations remain equally high, but the tools for delivery are more limited.
Contract Testing Inc. is an industry leader in sensory evaluation and consumer product testing. We are the only sensory evaluation and consumer product research company with corporately managed test sites in both Canada and the United States.
With 30 years of experience, we are innovators in testing with consumers across all major food, beverage and household and personal care categories.
For questions about this research, or how you can leverage consumer taste buds in your business, contact Andrew Scholes using this form or call 1-800-342-1825.