I had just moved from the sunny South to a new campus up North to start my doctoral program. My wife and I needed help getting furniture for our unfurnished campus housing. A tall, fellow student offered to organize help. Little did I imagine that the guy who was instrumental in getting us moved in would, one day forty years later, become President of the Institute of Food Technologists! At the beginning of the year I started a short conversation on FB Messenger that went as follows:
That exchange led to this letter*:
Thank you for your interest in my perspective on the top three challenges facing the food industry/food scientists today. Professors tend to be better at giving instructions than taking them. Please accept this expanded list.
1. Healthiness in food products is being called for by both critics from the outside and scientists within our field. Nicola Temple makes strong case for this effort in her book Best Before as does Julian McClements in Future Foods. Not every product needs to be healthy, but a concerted effort should be taken by product developers to improve the healthiness of products for sale. The hard part of this message is trying to define what constitutes healthy.
2. Sustainability of processed foods is also called for in Best Before and Future Foods. Much effort is being made through supply chains to improve product sustainability, but it is not clear if such an effort is profitable. With an increased interest in the threat posed by global climate change, I would encourage companies to stay the course. In this effort companies need to focus on actually delivering sustainable products and not merely on marketing the appearance of delivering sustainable products. Processing, particularly as it contributes to reducing food waste, can be viewed as having a huge positive impact on sustainability.
3. ‘Ultra-processed foods’ is a term that not only a misnomer but a threat to food processing as we know it. A more appropriate term would be ‘ultra-formulated’ (although it has challenges as well). This category of foods actually lumps together all food products that contain more than five ingredients. Included in the description of ultra-processed foods are products that contain the following types of additives: anti-bulking agents, anti-caking agents, bulking agents, carbonating agents, colorants, color stabilizers, defoaming agents, emulsifiers, firming agents, flavor enhancers, glazing agents, humectants, sequestrants, and synthetic sweeteners. An easier way to envision what constitutes an ultra-processed food is any manufactured product that contains more than five ingredients on the ingredient statement. Thus, lumped in with products high in sugar or salt are all convenience foods, functional foods and distilled spirits.
Numerous studies have linked ultra-processed foods to specific diseases without differentiating the effects of foods in each of these broad categories. It is important that the food science community unite behind an opposition to this classification of food. Alan Kelly has a clear concise summary of the problem in Molecules, Microbes, and Meals with such a classification which is also available in a different form online.
4. Greater interaction between nutritionists and food scientists is also necessary to move the both fields ahead. Despite identifying ourselves as food scientists, we both have a Ph.D. in Food Science and Nutrition from the University of Massachusetts. Somewhere along the line the connection we experienced in grad school between nutrition and food science has been lost. The same group of critics that is telling the public to avoid processed foods is rejecting conventional nutrition, labeling it nutritionism, and turning to “self-taught nutritionists.” We need traditional nutritionists to help clarify how to improve the healthiness of foods, and they need us to work on developing a more nutritious food supply.
5. Keeping a healthy distance between academe and industry is also important. IFT members from the food industry should be careful not to put those of us from academe in a box. In Unsavory Truth Marion Nestle suggests that “The purpose of food science is to support the food industry by training students for jobs in the industry and by conducting research to support industry goals and practices.” With that one sentence she has labeled university food scientists, by virtue of our degree, as walking conflicts of interest.
Academic food scientists need to be able to demonstrate some distance from the industry to maintain their credibility with the public. Enhanced credibility by these scientists can help the field in the battle to defend ultra-processed foods. Likewise, researchers outside the industry need to recognize that without a viable food industry, the application of scientific principles developed in their labs will be limited. At the end of the day, however, we have a common goal as food scientists, to deliver “healthful” food products that appeal to consumers, taste great, and are affordable—a very tough challenge!
I hope these comments are helpful when you put together your remarks as you assume the Presidency of IFT. I wish you well in communicating across the organization.
PS In this letter I have probably left off the greatest challenge we face as food scientists which is how to feed the 9 Billion people that will be on earth by 2050. It is difficult to see how we will meet this challenge without both processed foods brought to us through new technologies and locally sourced, fresh foods.
*This letter has been lightly edited from the one I originally sent to Noel. Links and photos have also been added.
Next week: Molecules, Microbes, and Meals: The Surprising Science of Food