What dietitians and food scientists need to know about each other by Trey Sanders

Just like any other group, the best way to foster better communication between food scientists with nutrition professionals would be to know the audience first. The terms used for food scientists, dietitians, and nutritionists are not universal, nor are their roles and responsibilities.

I welcome Trey Sanders to the site today. He is uniquely qualified to talk about communication between food scientists and dietitians. He is both a Certified Food Scientist and a Registered Dietitian. Trey came over from Family and Consumer Sciences to take my graduate course in Flavor Chemistry and Evaluation. Understanding and interpretation is all about context! I will let him take it from there–RLS.

Dietitians and nutritionists are not synonymous. To become a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), the credential is earned by completing at minimum a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from a US regionally accredited university, college or foreign equivalent, complete 1200 hours of supervised practice through a dietetic internship, and passing a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

Dietitians work in a variety of settings so their experience and perspective varies. The primary assumption is that RDs work in hospitals, clinics or health care facilities. In those settings, RDs are educating patients and delivering medical nutrition therapy as part of a health care team. Dietitians also work in public health settings, teaching the public about healthy eating habits, and universities and medical centers, where they teach about the science of food and nutrition. RDs in corporate wellness and sports nutrition programs work with clients on the connections between food, fitness and health and others work in research, conducting experiments to answer critical nutrition questions. RDs can be found in the food and supplement industries in communications, regulatory and labeling or consulting with health care food companies or restaurants.

Another group of nutrition professionals are nutrition and dietetic technicians, registered (NDTRs). They are also nationally credentialed but work under the supervision of Dietitians to provide patient care in health care or foodservice management settings. To become a NDTRs, at least a two year associate’s degree from a US regionally accredited university, college or foreign equivalent, complete 450 hours of supervised practice, and passing a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

NDTRs can also work independently to provide general nutrition education. These professionals can educate clients on connections between food, fitness and health via weight management clinics, community wellness centers and health clubs. They can manage employees, purchasing and food preparation in health care facilities, correctional facilities, schools, and day care centers. They can also work in contract positions developing menus, conducting nutrient analyses for food vending, distribution, or management operations.

There is no official definition or regulation for the term “nutritionist.” The term is typically associated with wellness and people with a variety of backgrounds can claim themselves to be nutritionists. This can vary from professionals who have degrees in nutrition, physical therapy, exercise physiology to those whom have no verifiable background in the study of nutrition. Because of the wide variation in nutrition education and lack of national verification, it takes more time and scrutiny to trust the nutritional advice provided.

The bottom line—not every nutrition professional is equal. Do they have a credential, and who is the credentialing body?

As a point of comparison, food science does have a certification, certified food scientist (CFS), provided by the Institute of Food technologists. Unlike the RD credential, the CFS credential does not preclude food scientists from holding positions in the field.

Like nutrition, food science encompasses multiple disciplines with unique roles and responsibilities. Food quality microbiologists play a key role ensuring food is safe to consume. Additionally, food engineers design and interact with processing and packaging systems. A more familiar aspect of food science is product development where scientists are designing, creating, and scaling food products for consumers. Food chemists develop and analyze methods of processing on food as well as the methods to recover and quantify components. Sensory scientists interact with consumers to understand the characteristics of foods.

Food scientists work in the food, beverage, and supplement industries, whether in public or private sectors. Food scientists can also develop the science that help shape policies as a part of government agencies. Like dietitians, food scientists work in academia doing teaching and research, and work as consultants, lending their expertise across multiple sectors.

Why do these distinctions matter, for both fields? The nuances make all the difference. The assumption of communication needed between food scientists and dietitians is a communication between product developers and clinical registered dietitians. In a sense, these two positions represent the opposite ends of consumer experience; the product developer is doing the ideation and creation of the food product while the clinical dietitian can see the consumer impacts in a hospital setting. The experience I bring comes from positions as a clinical registered dietitian, food industry wellness dietitian, sensory scientist, and product developer.

What I would want clinical dietitians to know from a product development perspective is that the primary stakeholders for product developers are the innovation marketing team, not the consumer directly. Typically, it the innovation marketing team that is targeting consumers, identifying what they want/need and formulating concepts for the product developers to execute against. Product developers have varying levels of influence in how the concepts are shaped, but ultimately are tasked with executing against the attributes (taste and nutritionally) defined by the innovation marketers. Product developers rarely have exposure to the downstream effects of the products they create; many times, product developers are not even aware of the sales and customer reviews of their products, especially over time. Those learnings are not consistently provided back to product developers, let alone incorporated into existing or future products.

What I would want food scientists to know from a clinical nutrition perspective is that most of the work they do is reactive, not proactive. By the time patients are in the hospital, the last thing they want to talk about is food, even if it is the reason they are being hospitalized! When patients are in the hospital for a condition, the stress of being in the hospital decreases appetite (and this is not even assuming the underlying reason is nutritional). If the patient is not there for a direct nutritional implication, any nutritional education is last minute and falls on deaf ears. If the patient is there related to nutrition, that would mean the severity or lack of willingness to change is high. These patients are typically not the most responsive to nutrition education or might be too sick to implement educational learnings quickly. In the hospital, dietitians are working on a broader scale monitoring patient consumption inputs and output quantities, and designing interventions from a nutrition perspective, not food specific.

I do believe food scientists and nutritionists need to communicate, but there needs to be more links in the chain. The opportunity to bring change will come once food marketers and public health nutrition professionals are communicating consistently. Both of these groups are tasked with directly interacting with people and would provide the best chance at triangulating wants and needs. Increasing communication between clinical dietitians and public health dietitians will make sure hospital interventions trends can be converted from reactive measures to proactive education.

Public health dietitians work in the community to guide and educate consumers on proactive measures to live healthier lives while food marketers learn what and why those foods are important to them. The food marketers in turn take this information and translate into a product brief that better aligns with the public health messaging. Product developers create concepts, prototypes and finished products based on the product brief, providing consumers with products that they want and know are better for them. This development work is done with sensory scientists, food microbiologists, and food engineers.

We will not be able to completely control how consumers interact with foods, but more communication throughout the sub disciplines of dietetics and food science will be key. It will take each of these disciplines to help move both our population and its foods to a point of aligned proactivity.

photo of the author of this guest blog
Trey Sanders

Trey Sanders is a Georgia native, Certified Food Scientist, and Registered Dietitian. His undergraduate degrees were in sensory science and dietetics, while his Masters degree was in nutrition and food product development, all at the University of Georgia. Trey’s thesis work focused on peanut skin fortification of peanut butters and their resulting consumer acceptability. While he has spent 10 years in the food industry, Trey also gained his registered dietitian credential 10 years ago and has used it throughout his career. 

Trey uses his RD background for domestic and international nutrition labelling, corporate wellness program, and clinical nutrition interventions for burn patients, ICU and NICU populations. The number of direct reports have varied over the years, but Trey has 8+ years experience in hiring, onboarding, developing & coaching laboratory technicians, culinary specialists, and product development scientists. Trey has held roles in sensory, nutrition and product development work for brands such as Wonderful Pistachios, Krusteaz, and Bulletproof. As a R&D manager for Bulletproof 360, Trey currently has responsibility for the product development activity across the RTD coffee, protein bars, capsule supplement, and fats/oils product categories. 


3 thoughts on “What dietitians and food scientists need to know about each other by Trey Sanders

  1. “By the time patients are in the hospital, the last thing they want to talk about is food…” I laughed out loud when I read this because it’s so true. And it’s why I preferred working in rehab where folks had time to listen and talk. I can understand why marketers and public health nutrition professionals have difficulty communicating. Selling consumers what they want to eat is not always aligned with educating consumers on what they should eat. My congratulations to the writer for advocating more frequent, collaborative communications. My preferred solution is spending more time cooking & eating more freshly prepared meals, but perhaps a more realist solution is better alignment between wants and needs.


    1. Points well taken Cooking and eating more freshly prepared meals is great for families with the time, skills, equipment, and money to prepare all their meals. If every family could do that, there would be no need for food scientists or dietitians! If dietitians want more nutritious foods available, they need to talk to and listen to food scientists. If food scientists want more respect from dietitians, we need to listen to dietitians and other nutrition professionals about how to improve the foods we develop. Both ends of the spectrum must learn to appreciate the constraints on others between the extremes. If we are to make progress to a healthier food supply, we should spend less time talking and more time listening to understand. Great guest blog, Trey! Thanks.


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