Support of food science community is imperative

by Keith Nunes
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The Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and exposition are a good barometer to measure how the discipline of food science is evolving. The products, services and systems exhibited on the exposition floor demonstrate the advances food science has made, while the discussions in the education sessions held during the I.F.T.’s annual meeting highlight the shortcomings of the profession. Of great, if not greatest, concern to the food industry is the downtrend in number of students entering the field.

Within the realm of food science, researchers have made significant strides in the development of novel ingredients and systems to improve the nutrition and safety of food products. But in the area of public policy, food science has not made similar advances. One reason for this may be that too few scientists have ventured beyond their own narrow disciplines to engage in the policy debates shaping the food and beverage industry’s future.

Dr. Fergus M. Clydesdale, distinguished professor and director of the food science policy alliance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, articulated this point during an I.F.T. education session when he noted there is only one food scientist participating on the committee that will recommend the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

"A food scientist should not be relegated to just food safety on the Dietary Guidelines, and there should be more than one," Dr. Clydesdale said.

The history of public policy as it relates to food ingredients, diet and nutrition is littered with unintended consequences. The alarm raised about trans fatty acids in food products is a good example. In an effort to remove trans fats, food processors have reformulated products using other ingredients that have the sole nutritional benefit of not being classified as a trans fat.

A tremendous amount of effort and expense went into removing trans fats from many food products. Yet the fact the net nutritional gain may be negligible underscores why those calling for change should consider the science rather than just the public policy and public relations benefits. This issue takes on greater importance as the public health debate focuses on sodium, high-fructose corn syrup and acrylamide.

Further complicating future efforts to inject the knowledge and experience of food scientists into public policy debates is the decline of students enrolling in university food science programs. A study conducted by John Floros, the head of Penn State’s food science department, underscores this shrinking enrollment in the nation’s university food science programs. Between 2000 and 2004 alone there was a 32% decrease in graduating food science students in North America.

In his book "Stuffed," Hank Cardello, a former executive with The Coca-Cola Co. and General Mills, Inc., notes, "Man has always consumed food in one form or another, but it’s only been in the last half century that we’re really beginning to understand what’s in it and what it does to us."

There is much more to learn about food science and nutrition as well as advances to be made in ingredient and processing technologies.

It is in the food manufacturing industry’s best interest to help recruit food science students and support the programs that allow scientists to examine potential advances benefiting the food and beverage industries. It is also imperative that food scientists be allowed to take leadership roles in future public policy debates.

Many companies and institutions have invested in the I.F.T. Student Association and the I.F.T. Foundation, organizations dedicated to promoting the discipline of food science, and they are to be applauded for their actions. Given the difficult issues facing the industry, other companies may want to consider what they should be doing to support the food science community on a national or regional basis.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 23, 2009, starting on Page 9. Click here to search that archive.

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