Food science plays an essential role in ensuring that food is affordable, accessible, and nutritious. Yet given the relatively hidden and misunderstood nature of the field, the contribution of food science to the global food system is often overlooked, said Anna Rosales, senior director of government affairs and nutrition at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).
Through her work at IFT, Rosales advocates for the role of food science within the realm of food and nutrition, food security, and sustainable food systems and believes that food scientists are “the unsung heroes of the food industry”.
By elevating the voice of food scientists, IFT seeks to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the wider food industry to help build a more sustainable food ecosystem.
“When you hear about food systems, people often say ‘farm to fork’ but food science is the connecting piece that makes the food from the farm actually get to the fork,” she said.
Design food products with nutrition in mind
Longstanding food system challenges can be more effectively addressed when industry priorities and disciplines align, Rosales believes. Before joining IFT over one year ago, Rosales worked in the clinical nutrition sector as a registered dietitian. She later transitioned to the corporate food industry and gained experience working alongside food scientists and product developers at large multinational brands such as Yakult and Barilla.
It is this unique cross-divisional experience that led her to explore the broader impact of food on public health and realise the benefits that increased collaboration between food scientists, nutrition experts, and industry stakeholders can bring.
“People say, ‘well how on how on earth can you have something that's delicious, affordable, and healthy?’ Well, if you wait until the end to try to figure out the nutrition, that might be hard. But if you work from the beginning and make that your goal and framework, it's completely possible, plausible, and exciting,” she said.
Collaborate to solve food system challenges
According to Rosales, food science holds the key to building more sustainable and resilient food systems. Acting as a middleman between food scientists, regulators, and corporates, her current role balances managing government affairs with translating complex scientific information and opinions into cohesive messages that represent the views and interests of IFT contributors.
“We take information from our members and translate that into comments that we put forward to make sure the voice of food science and our science food members is being heard throughout policies and policymaking processes,” Rosales explained.
Connecting professionals and sharing information across the food system can be beneficial in reducing the misunderstanding that exists around food processing and food science.
“If we don't all talk together, we don't understand the potential unintended consequences of doing one thing versus the other […] We all need to be working together sharing the science that we have and figuring out where the gaps and opportunities are,” Rosales said.
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Manufacturers must ensure food is not only healthy, but also acceptable
Population growth paired the dual burden of obesity and malnutrition are amongst the greatest challenges facing the food system today, according to Rosales. Food and nutrition security varies greatly across regions with obesity and malnutrition often coexisting within single countries. It's the collaborative efforts of professionals from different food industry disciplines that can address these complex challenges.
“These conflicting challenges are really all around the world and it's all about how we innovate and educate better to try to deal with these challenges,” Rosales said.
“All of these [challenges] come down to food nutrition security in some way, it just looks a little bit different in every country or region. With that, we have to figure out how across the board we make [food] more affordable, available, accessible, and acceptable.”
According to Rosales, it is not only important to make food nutritious and accessible to consumers, but also desirable. Acceptability is the concept that food must be delicious, desirable, and convenient for consumers to purchase it.
A wealth of research exists supporting that across the globe, price, taste, and convenience are the key drivers of food purchasing decisions. Yet delivering these three elements while producing food that aligns with nutrition recommendations and targets is often a challenge for food manufacturers.
“It's a very complex challenge across the world with several different solutions that need to come together, but there's no one silver bullet so to speak. No matter how much you innovate on health or on how the product looks or smells, it always just comes down to price, taste, and convenience at the end of the day,” Rosales said.
Taking this challenge as a framework for innovation, regulators and manufacturers must work together to produce food that appeals to consumers whilst also adhering to differing nutritional standards and recommendations, Rosales explained.
“How do we not just say, ‘here's what you need to eat,’ but take it into context and say, ‘here's how you can do it affordably; here's how you can make these dietary guidance recommendations delicious.’ We need to communicate better across those sciences and share what we know so that we can help make it a better environment all together,” she said.
Changing attitudes around processed and ultra-processed foods via technology
Technology, investment, and research are sparking innovation in the nutrition space with novel techniques such as cellular agriculture, precision fermentation, and upcycling seeing an uptick in popularity in recent years. All these techniques involve various levels of food processing, which is often viewed negatively by consumers.
“We have this current of consumers negatively lumping all processed and ultra-processed foods in categories that are considered things that you should eat less of. We must deal with this duality of introducing more sustainable solutions and managing consumer acceptance and understanding,” Rosales said.
A study published in July by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center – a branch of its Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) – found that it is possible to build a healthy diet with over 90% of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods (as classified using the NOVA scale), while adhering to the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
According to Rosales, transparent communication about the processes behind these innovations is key to building trust, acceptance, and understanding amongst consumers.
“If we can demystify how [food] goes from here to here really fast and communicate that more directly to consumers, we can help build trust in various products that are processed or might be made from innovative means that they might not be as familiar with,” Rosales said.
In this way, technology will have an important role to play fostering food system innovation that is more sustainable, healthy, and transparent for consumers, Rosales said.