Mary Ellen Camire is professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. She’s also the director of the University of Maine Sensory Evaluation Center, where much of her research focuses on how consumers respond to Maine-specific commodities, like seaweed, potatoes, berries and grains. We talked with her about her background in nutrition, why where you eat matters when you are taste testing and how the lab works with new local foods.

TEXAS TIME: Camire studied biology as an undergraduate at Harvard and she met a professor there, famed nutritionist Jean Mayer, who inspired her to go on to get an advanced degree in nutrition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “Then I married a food scientist, and he worked for Frito-Lay (in Texas), and they asked me to help with some food testing.” She started with orange juice and experimented with mixers for things like Baccardi drinks. “You wouldn’t want to launch a product and then find out it gives people a bellyache.” While in Texas, she got a Ph.D. in nutrition science from Texas Women’s University. Her dissertation research involved high-protein, high-fiber Cheerios. “I still haven’t seen that in the store yet.”

MAINE MOVE: She applied for the job at the University of Maine in the late 1980s, joining the university’s lab in 1989. At that point, the university had already been doing sensory evaluations since the 1930s. “We’re really the only lab of this kind in New England. Cornell is the closest.” Does she work only on foods that are produced in Maine? “Occasionally, we work with products that aren’t from Maine, but absolutely, our research focus is on crops and products from Maine.”

ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO: One of the very first jobs she worked on at the lab was trying to figure out what to do with the waste from processing potatoes into chips and fries. “We were doing sustainability before it was even trendy.”

WHAT ELSE? They’ve experimented with the invasive green crabs – everyone wants to find a way to eat them – and wild blueberries. One of their missions it to figure out what to do with the culled blueberries from processing (you know, the red and green ones that get raked along with the ripe berries). “Some are going to compost, but we were trying to find value-added ways to use them as ingredients.” Like extracting the pectin and finding ways to get the nutritional parts of the berries into say, dog food. Often the lab will work with companies that have landed a USDA grant. “We will provide the consumer testing for them so they will know if their concept is on target.”

TOP SECRET CHEF: The lab has done some tinkering and tasting with a soy drink involving wild blueberries. Yum, where can we get that? With this particular concoction, apparently, nowhere commercially, yet, although that thesis was completed in 2004. “The timing on these things is really funny. Ideas come up, and 20 years later, they come to fruition.” Or sometimes, the lab doesn’t know where or what happens to their results, because many companies don’t want their research shared, so “it’s hard to track how our information gets used.”


BIG GREEN: “We’re doing a lot with seaweed because the industry is really taking off. Most of the new companies don’t have a food scientist on staff.” Her students have been helping Ocean’s Balance with a kelp bar, a particularly hot item right now (like a protein bar, but kelp-based). “There are about four companies trying to do that.” Ocean’s Balance recently brought a kelp puree onto the market (it’s available at the Portland Food Co-Op and Harbor Fish, among other local outlets) and Camire thinks purees are winners, especially for those who balk at the taste of seaweed. “It doesn’t taste fishy.” Other seaweed products that might be coming through the lab include a seaweed broth. “That will certainly make the vegans happy.”

ON THE ROAD: The lab is in Orono, but often they’ll hold sensory evaluations in other locations, like say, Belfast or Portland. The lab isn’t an ideal setting to see how a new food goes over, Camire said. “Because that is not necessarily how people eat. And we want to see how a person would enjoy the food. Like if we were testing lobster rolls, we might want to take it to a beach. That is a big area in sensory science, understanding the role of emotion and context in how people select foods.”

REWARDS PROGRAM: Camire loves seeing her food science students go on to success. Which she says more often than not involves working on the corporate side of things. Three of her former students have gone on to be vice presidents of food companies (none in state). As she herself has aged, she’s gotten more interested in working with older populations, specifically in trying to find ways to make important nutritional products, like whole grains, more palatable for a generation that isn’t necessarily accustomed to buying bulgur wheat. “I like working with older people. I am getting there myself.”

THE NUTRITIONIST’S DIET: How does Camire herself do in terms of healthy eating? “I am a big advocate for eating different, varied foods. I don’t necessarily eat bread every day. Right now? A lot of greens, including bok choy, My partner planted two whole packages of pea pods so we are eating a lot of stir fries.” And her side gig helps with health too: “I am licensed as a Zumba instructor.” Sometimes, she says, “I wonder why I am working seven days a week. But I don’t get bored.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

Twitter: MaryPols

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