Dr Emma Williams studied to be a food technologist and has a PhD in food and nutrition. Throughout her career, Williams has held various positions in the private sector such as health manager at UK retailer Waitrose and European vice president at Eat Well Global. She has also worked in the non-profit sector as nutrition scientist and editor at the British Nutrition Foundation and in academic research.
Williams is chair of Nutritionists in Industry, an association with over 150 members from across the industry, and is currently looking for her next professional role.
How have the different roles you have held helped you better understand the food and nutrition industry, and the challenges it faces today?
“For my undergraduate degree, I trained in food manufacturing, so I understood where food comes from, how it's made. Then I went to work in clinical research at the Mater hospital [in Dublin] where I was literally sitting on the side of hospital patients’ beds, knowing that they may pass away in the coming days.
“I really realised the importance of public health prevention and understanding things like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. It's important that we have a healthy food supply and we provide people with choice. There's an important role for reformulation and there's a need for consumer education around healthy eating, how to prepare tasty, healthy, perfectly portioned meals.
“I'm also a farmer's daughter and so, before my career, I worked on the land. We had pigs, we had dairy cows for a while – I was milking the cows – and now we have a deer farm. I have an understanding of why maintaining the land and looking after the soil, animal welfare, and their feed supply is also important to get healthy, nutritious food.
“We do all eat treats and so we can't ban unhealthy food; but it's [about] helping people to understand the different food choices. We can make food better and we can make that messaging better.”
Thinking about your career specifically, have you felt that you have hit a glass ceiling or faced obstacles because you are a woman? And if so, how did you overcome this?
“Commercially, it can very much be a man's world, and certainly in my early commercial career, there were a lot of men in the boardroom and at the top. In those circumstances, I think it's [about] trying to be seen and making sure that you network as much as possible.
“In my experience, I've tried to find avenues in which I could either A, network or B, have my voice heard through different communication channels, whether that was writing articles in an internal publication or getting involved in talent and progression groups.
“I also got involved in some workplace health initiatives on, for example, menopause, back in 2018 when no one was talking about menopause. Myself and another colleague started doing lunch and learn sessions. We wanted to make sure that women in the business were aware of it. It gained traction [to the point where] where our voices were finally heard and we created a dedicated communications hub within the business, revised relevant policies, and made the business a menopause-friendly accredited business.
You are currently looking for your next role. How are you finding this process?
“The obstacles that I'm facing [when jobhunting] are around how much experience I have. I'm now being told, ‘you have an amazing CV with really comprehensive experience, but it might be best for us to go with someone more junior’. This is disheartening but, as the saying goes, ‘if you buy cheap, you pay twice’, and it's important to know your worth.
“What I'm seeing in that regard is that there are some brilliant women at the top of their game that have had to leave their careers after having had children – often through redundancies – and are starting their own consultancy businesses or going freelance because they simply can't get the next career choice. But it's about evolution and not giving up. The greatest failure is the failure to try.”
As someone with a PhD in nutrition, what is your personal approach to healthy eating? Do you take supplements or do you prefer to get your nutrients through whole foods?
“I prefer to get my nutrition from whole foods and I'm more savoury than sweet. Often, the only times you might find biscuits in my cupboard is if they've been bought for someone else. I very rarely will have sweet treats, but you'll find eggs, you'll find porridge, you'll find nut butters and Vegemite, those kinds of foods. As a nutritionist, there's an element of practicing what you preach.
“In terms of supplements, I always take vitamin D and I'll also try and take some B vitamins if I think that my energy levels are low, or I haven't had much red meat. I try to have red meat at least once a week or the likes of Vegemite on toast, and I also try to have oily fish at least once a week.
“I'm a huge fan of nuts and seeds; they are small and mighty and contain so many valuable micronutrients. I always think of nuts and seeds as being the beginnings of life. They contain a lot of nutrients for new growth development and they're quite easy to top up on, just sprinkling them on your porridge or having them as a little snack.”
It seems that you are careful to include animal-based sources of protein in your diet and eat red meat and fish at least a couple of times a week. What do you think about the current boom in demand for plant-based food and drink?
“My concerns would be individuals who don't do the diet properly. They need to make sure that they're not missing out on key nutrients and are [aware of] the nutritional impact that their food choices or lack thereof may have on them in later life for things like bone health.
“From a sustainability perspective, I think we need to encourage people to eat more plant-based foods but to create healthier dishes [themselves] rather than having commercially prepared products. My concern about those products would be the level of salt, fat, and sugar they can contain and the potential lack of fortification.”