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'Why start my own consultancy? I wanted to bring clarity and expertise to that sometimes-murky area where food and nutrition science meet marketing' – Dr Rachel Cheatham [Interview]

Article-'Why start my own consultancy? I wanted to bring clarity and expertise to that sometimes-murky area where food and nutrition science meet marketing' – Dr Rachel Cheatham [Interview]

Navigating today’s food system is complex. Brands must keep a finger on the pulse of food trends but also food policy regulations, ingredient sourcing, and the constantly evolving field of nutrition science. Dr Rachel Cheatham is the founder and CEO of Foodscape Group, a nutrition-focused innovation consultancy that aims to help entrepreneurs, manufacturers and start-ups conceptualize and market healthier food and drink products.

What attracted you to a career in the food industry?

“I actually didn't set out for a career in the food industry, it's been more of a zig zag approach. I studied political science and then media studies in college. That background eventually led to a job in advertising as a commercial TV producer. Around that time, I also got certified as a personal trainer and worked with a few clients. I began to notice that nearly every single one asked me about what to eat or not eat.

“Trying to find real answers led me back to academia and one thing led to another and I ended up with a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Tufts University. Instead of doing a traditional postdoc route, I was still thinking back to what had stoked my interest in food in the first place and I went to work in food policy and communications. After a stint with a large global food PR agency, I decided to start my own company.”

You have held various roles during your food career from PR professional to nutrition researcher; university professor to director of the Washington DC-based International Food Information Council. What has been the benefit for you in holding such different roles?

“I describe my background as split brain - meaning half devoted to marketing, communications and creative storytelling with the other half all about science, research and data. Each role allowed me to better understand how those two halves are intricately connected. I often find the language and communication style of a brand manager may differ from the food scientist in R&D, but really, they are aiming for the same target. Thanks to all these different roles, I'm able to interact effectively and tap into the intelligence of each function. That leads to innovation and forward progress, which is important in the highly competitive landscape of the food industry.”

What motivated you to set up your own food consultancy, Foodscape? What were the biggest challenges in starting your own company and how did you overcome them?

“The reasons for starting my own food consultancy, Foodscape Group, back in 2013 were two-fold. One - I wanted more control over my work schedule as the big global PR firm life was extremely demanding. And two, I wanted to bring clarity and expertise to that sometimes-murky area where food and nutrition science meet marketing. As a trained nutritionist, I want to provide insights and counsel that encourage bringing more nutritious foods to the marketplace.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge in starting Foodscape Group was to learn to say no. In the beginning, it was not easy or even financially possible, but as I gained my footing, and moved away from food PR and into food industry consultancy, my path crystallized. I had to be sure to be the one that defined the kind of strategic work I wanted to do and not just take every opportunity that came my way. I had to learn to become comfortable with existing in that "in between space" as a credible voice of nutrition, health and wellness sharing an evidence-based, independent point of view.”

Do you have any advice for women interested in a career in the F&B space?

“Be curious and be willing to zig zag your way slowly over time into a role that uniquely fits you. It's doubtful your perfect job exists and all you need to do is find it and get hired. Rather, expect a messier, less planned approach that involves gaining experiences in a wide variety of companies and roles.

“Over the course of my career, I've also intentionally strayed from my core competencies into areas like investment banking and finance or digital app development to expand my thinking. Often these explorations landed me in rather male-dominated spaces, and I had to be comfortable with being the only female in the room at times. This is changing, but more work needs to be done. Of course, I have to add that if the inclination exists, consider an advanced degree, especially one in science or technology. For me, it has been the real linchpin in my career trajectory.”

You are a nutritional biochemist. What kind of foods would we see if we peeked in your fridge and kitchen cupboards?

“The widest variety of fresh, dried, canned and frozen plant foods possible from my downtown Chicago home. According to the FAO, the world has over 50,000 edible plants. Just three of them, rice, maize and wheat, provide 60% of the world's food energy intake. We need to flip the current script to a strong focus on nutrient-dense, lesser processed, plant-forward dietary patterns. It's time to view variety, nutrition, health and sustainability all together in a food systems mindset.”

Do you find it difficult to keep a work-life balance?

“These days I have no difficulty keeping a work-life balance, but it wasn't always that way. Back when I worked for a large global PR firm it was difficult to impossible to keep any semblance of work-life balance. Billable hours were 24/7! I believe I had to go through the years of not having any balance to understand what being in balance could and should look like for me. As it was one of my motivators in becoming an entrepreneur, I am always trying to make sure my company reflects my ideology. Now it comes naturally, and it all just flows. I am very grateful.”