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Ulster University has welcomed 15 of Northern Ireland’s food and retail firms to its Food and Consumer Testing Suite (FACTS) to get a glimpse into the future of food innovation.

The testing suite, based at the university's Coleraine campus, offers a breadth of research and insights into consumer behaviour. The 15 local companies, including Irish Black Butter, Baladi Foods and Noisy Snacks, visited the facility’s virtual reality lab to participate in a simulation to explore consumer shopping habits, as well as sensory testing a range of food products.

The university’s FACTS facility was set up 15 years ago and major projects have included working with McDonalds to introduce the McPlant – its first vegan burger in the UK in 2020/1, as well as working with Spar to introduce the Taste Tester Approval Award – the star rating found on Spar products’ packaging. Ulster University’s team also works with luxury brand Fortnum and Mason on sensory training for 40 of their buyers on products ranging from rosé wine to chocolates, as well as working with other local independent businesses. 

Recent investment in the facility in Coleraine has seen the creation of the Consumer Insights Lab – a virtual reality supermarket that allows retailers to see how their products will look physically on the shelf. This is research that Spar has recently tapped into as the first local company to broaden its insights into consumer behaviour with Ulster University’s new virtual reality facility.

Welcoming the businesses to the testing suite, Director of FACTS and Senior Lecturer, Dr Amy Burns said:

“We are excited to host 15 local businesses in our FACTS facility today to demonstrate the breadth of what we can offer here at Ulster University. In our research, we are keen to capitalise on all of the senses – taste, touch, see, smell, and sound as well as testing the functionality of the product. And it’s not just food that we specialise in – we also test things like shampoo and conditioner.”

“Many of the tests and research we conduct here at the lab are more novel than others, for example releasing aromas, and have tried and tested this with the scent of freshly baked bread to see how this impacts consumer habits in supermarkets. We want businesses across Northern Ireland, and further afield, to know that we are keen to work with you and would love to hear from you if you’re interested.”

Hani Muhtadi, Founder and Managing Director of Baladi Foods, said:

“Working with Ulster University, my product has seen a leapfrog in quality and most importantly, shelf life, which in turn has made my venture more viable and with great potential for export. We have also been able to finalise a new product which I know will be a first for the Northern Ireland market.

“The facilities at Ulster University Coleraine for market research and customer feedback have been important to the success of my business and I would like to thank Dr Amy Burns, Michael Gillies, and the talented students at Ulster University for their support, especially during these challenging times.”

Alastair Bell, Managing Director at Irish Black Butter said:

“The Food and Consumer Testing Suite at Ulster University Coleraine is a superb facility and Irish Black Butter has already benefitted from using it. It is a goldmine of consumer insights and we are delighted to have such a facility and talented team of people on our doorstep. We’d recommend other businesses to consider availing of all that’s available.”

For more information on the FACTs facility and to get in touch, visit: