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Target fruit has become a buzzword in tree fruit production in recent years. It’s what growers are encouraged to grow, but what exactly is it?

Dr. Matt Whiting, horticulturist with Washington State University in Prosser, is conducting research to help answer that question and better define a quality cherry.

Ultimately, it’s the consumer who defines what a quality cherry is, he said.

Whiting collaborated with Dr. Carolyn Ross, a food scientist with WSU in Pullman, to have panels of trained taste testers and consumers evaluate a range of cherry varieties for appearance and taste. The goals were to shed light on what makes them like or dislike a cherry and to find out if they could perceive differences between cherry varieties, he explained during the annual Cherry Institute in Yakima in January.

The varieties sampled covering a wide range of attributes. For example, the sweetness levels ranged from 17 to 24.5° Brix, and the color ranged from light red to dark mahogany.

The ten trained panelists sampled five varieties: Regina; Cowiche (a WSU-Prosser selection previously known as PC 7903-2); an experimental variety with high sugars and good firmness known as PC 8011-5; Sweetheart; and Selah, which was used for training purposes only. The 150 consumers who sampled cherries tested all except Selah.

About 80 percent of the panelists rated Sweetheart as a high-acid cherry, even though the sweetness level was not particularly low, nor the acid particularly high, Whiting said. "It’s more the balance of acid and sugars people are responding to," Whiting explained.

It was clear that the panelists could differentiate between varieties, he added, and their feedback correlated well with the measurable characteristics of the cherries.

Consumers

In terms of appearance, color was by far the most important attribute to consumers, and they preferred Regina and Cowiche because of their dark color. Size was less important. They scored Sweetheart as the least attractive because of its light red color, and did not like the short stems of Cowiche.

Although Regina was rated best in terms of appearance, consumers ranked it the lowest after tasting it, with only 12 percent of the consumers believing it to be the most pleasant tasting. In contrast, although they did not like the look of PC 8011-5, it was the consumers’ favorite cherry after they tasted it. Like the trained panelists, they found Sweetheart to be sour, even though it had a sugar level of 19º Brix.

Whiting said when tasting the cherries, the consumers responded overwhelmingly to sweetness, and the sweeter the cherry, the better. The second most important attribute was juiciness, and the third most important was flavor. People did not like cherries that were acidic. Firmness was not an issue.

Breeding

Whiting said the insights into consumer preferences would help the cherry-breeding program at Prosser to develop varieties that people like. "It helps us find targets for breeding."

Asked whether the results indicate that orchardists should not be growing Sweetheart, Whiting said the objective of the study was to understand which attributes drive people’s liking, rather than which varieties they like. The Sweetheart cherries were light colored, and it could be that they were picked a little early, although the sugar level was high enough. The attributes of a particular variety will vary from year to year, he noted.

He said the commercial varieties in the test—Sweetheart and Regina—had been treated with gibberellic acid, but the other varieties were picked from trees in research plots and had not been treated.

In the future, Whiting hopes to find out what management techniques can be used to maximize the quality, based on consumer perception.