What do candles and food products have in common? At first glance, it might not be obvious – but to a sensory scientist it couldn’t be clearer.

“It’s all about the senses. The experience of burning your favorite candle, or enjoying a delicious dinner with family – both provide multi-sensorial experiences,” explains Loretta Barisas, who spent nine years employed by Party Lite candle company before bringing her sensory expertise to Sara Lee’s R&D team as Director of Sensory Research and Guidance.

“Gaining a deep understanding of product attributes that drive consumer liking is an important part of what I do,” she says. “What’s interesting about the sensory world is that methodologies are transferable across product categories.”

This knowledge base, stemming from Barisas’ extensive experience during more than a decade of work as a sensory scientist (prior to joining PartyLite, Barisas worked for SC Johnson as a senior sensory scientist for three years), is what made her a logical choice and valuable addition to Sara Lee’s R&D department.

In addition, Barisas’ resume contains a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing, and masters and PhD degrees in food science with a focus in sensory science, all from the Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “My background in food chemistry, combined with my sensory experience across a variety of product categories, has been invaluable for my role at Sara Lee,” she says.

“It’s important to look beyond liking. The connection between specific product and package sensory attributes with the emotions they elicit is an area of sensory research that is of particular interest to me,” she says. “We [at Sara Lee] are working toward gaining an understanding of the products we work on from a sensory perspective, in addition to a consumer perspective. If we understand what consumers are looking for, then we can create more products to meet their needs.”

Consumer satisfaction

According to Barisas, R&D is as much about consumers as it is about the products themselves.

“Consumers are looking for convenient products that taste great,” Barisas says. “Sara Lee has a number of products that satisfy this consumer need. We also have the opportunity to explore new, exciting products and packages that appeal to the senses.”

But what else are consumers looking for in the food aisles these days? Barisas says the answer is not always clear.

“There are so many product choices. We talk early and often to consumers so that we have an understanding of their perception of products in the marketplace, and the sensory ‘cues’ that are associated with product satisfaction,” she explains. “We have to get to the point where we know our consumers so well, and we know our products inside and out, so that we can make the adjustments and changes to our products in order to please our consumers.”

Barisas not only uses her sensory skills at work, but at home and when pursuing her hobbies of travel and photography.   “I am passionate about food. On my travels, I love to experience the local culture through the food,” she says. “As a sensory and food scientist I take every opportunity I can to learn from my culinary adventures.”