Food science alum promotes real food at Wonderful Company

UGA food science alum joins in-house research and insights team at The Wonderful Company, known for a slew of popular food products, including pomegranate juice and pistachios.

Sara Yang (BSA — Food Science, ’12) doesn’t just want you to eat healthy food. She wants you to savor it.

In her current role as associate manager of research for the Wonderful Company — a $5 billion, privately held corporation based in Los Angeles — Yang is excited to create a tangible impact on the company’s success.

Yang focuses on the Wonderful Company’s consumer-facing brands  — including health-forward household brands including Wonderful Pistachios, POM pomegranate juice, Halos mandarin oranges, Fiji Water, and JUSTIN wine — conducting primary and secondary research to understand how products and marketing campaigns are faring. For example, when the COVID-19 global pandemic limited in-person shopping, JUSTIN Wines began organizing virtual wine tastings, and her team interviewed the customers to understand the experience firsthand.

“It’s so useful to hear directly from consumers and make changes based on their reactions,” she says.

The company’s commitment to products that balance nutrition and good taste is one of the reasons Yang enjoys working with Wonderful Company.

From Grandma’s to Wonderful

After graduating from the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) with a bachelor’s degree in food science, Yang landed a position as a technical services manager at Grandma Hoerner’s Foods. The small family business based in Alma, Kansas, sprouted from Grandma’s 100-year-old recipe for applesauce, made with freshly sliced apples.

Yang admired the all-natural, organic approach — and she loved imagining how consumers would experience and enjoy the company’s offerings, which now stretch from fruit spreads to coffee and are shipped nationwide.

“It was a great experience,” Yang said. “After managing their food safety and quality programs and launching a new product line nationally, I realized I could probably do even more with a graduate degree.”Shelled and unshelled pistachios on a white background

Yang went to the University of California–Davis to earn a master’s degree in food science, but a professor convinced her to go for a doctorate, which she completed in 2018. As a graduate student, she interned at the Wonderful Company in the internal consulting and strategy group, which led to a full-time offer after she finished her degree.

“What’s interesting about the company is they’re vertically integrated, so they grow and harvest their own fruits and nuts, own their own processing plants, and develop their own internal ad campaigns,” Yang says. “Basically the whole supply chain is in the company’s control. And the strategy group has opportunities to help out at any stage and any level needed. It’s challenged me to learn different skills and work with some very bright people.”

Exploring what makes consumers buy healthy

After supporting a major IT implementation for the enterprise,  she shifted to the research and insight group, where she can explore her core interest — sensory and consumer science. In other words, what makes people eat actually healthy food and then buy more.

Yang also applies that expertise to the organization’s employee experience and wellness efforts. As part of the team spearheading the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative, one of the concrete findings has been that employees appreciate one-hour, virtual training sessions on DEI topics. Her philosophy: Give people what they want.

“Now we have a whole learning series of one-hour remote sessions,” she says. “That was a very specific thing we could act on,” she said.

At CAES, Yang was encouraged to take ownership of her own academic and career journey, to nurture her innate curiosity, to challenge herself and to open herself up to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. She uses those lessons every day, she added.

“Behind every data point is a person,” Yang said. “Being able to understand what they want and need comes easier when you are exposed to diverse groups of people. I really value the opportunity to make an impact and be able to see the value of your work.”

Learn more on the Department of Food Science and Technology website.