Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic Straws: Does drinking with a different straw affect the liking and sensory properties of the drinks you consume?
Businesses in the food and services sector are always looking for sustainable solutions to reduce the impact of their operations on the environment. In July 2021, the European Union introduced legislation banning numerous plastic items including plastic straws, plates, silverware, stirrers, cotton swabs, balloon sticks, and polystyrene foam food packaging. The goal of this legislation is to reduce and stop plastic waste that harms marine life ending up in the seas and oceans.
As an alternative to single-use plastic, wheat, paper, bamboo, pasta and rice biodegradable disposable straws and metal or silicone reusable straws are available on the market. However, this raises the question “Do plastic substitutes affect a product’s sensory perception?”. To answer this question, we paired up with one of our clients, leading soft drinks company Britvic, as part of our project “Let’s Partner Up: Single Use Plastics (SUPs)” – to conduct research together.
The business-related question that we both wished to investigate was consumer liking and preference for non-plastic straw materials. Wheat and paper were chosen as substitute materials for the straws, while tonic water, fruit syrup (diluted with water) and still water were tested as sample drinks.
A nine-point hedonic scale and the Just About Right (JAR) scale were used to collect the data – with participants rating flavour, mouthfeel and aftertaste. The questionnaire also asked participants to specify which straw material they would prefer as an alternative to plastic.
Results were then analysed separately for each product – consumers displayed no difference in liking scores when consuming the water sample through different straw materials. However, a difference in liking between materials was reported for the two other drinks – tonic and fruit syrup.
When tonic was consumed with a paper straw, the liking score was significantly lower than when tonic was consumed through a plastic straw. While there was no difference in liking when consuming tonic with the wheat straw. However, surprisingly, drinking the diluted fruit syrup sample through a wheat straw resulted in a significant decrease in liking when compared to both plastic and paper straws.
These findings suggest that consumers’ preference for straw material is dependent on the drink being consumed. Although our results show that plastic consistently generated comparatively high liking responses and alternative materials to plastic did not increase liking for a specific drink – it was also shown that should alternative materials be suitably paired with a given drink they did not decrease liking.
These results therefore indicate that if the straw material is paired appropriately with the product, sustainable alternatives can provide excellent substitutes for plastics, providing an equivalent experience for the consumer.
We further performed a penalty analysis on the JAR scores in order to investigate which material performed most similar to plastic across all drinks. When comparing the weighted penalties for flavour and aftertaste, experience of drinks with paper straws was shown to be similar to the experience of drinks with plastic straws. However, mouthfeel appears to differ for paper straws in comparison to both plastic and wheat straws.
Finally, when asked to choose an alternative straw material to plastic, participants were almost evenly divided.
These findings indicated that there is still much to learn about alternative straw materials. Therefore, follow-up research with trained panelists will be conducted in collaboration with Britvic to investigate how the sensory profile of drinks tasted with different straws can change when straws are soaked in drinks for different periods of time.