Food for Thought


Power bars, probiotic dairy drinks, iron-enriched soy--it's not quite food in a capsule, but the future of future-food is here. Ordinary chow is now über-food--food that turns Clark Kent into Superman and the rest of us into Methuselahs--at least that's the dream. And there are plenty willing to pay good money for such grub in the hope that it will at least boost their chances of living to a healthy old age.

In fact, the global market for functional foods, or nutraceuticals as they are often called, is worth a whopping $56 billion (?48 billion) according to the San Diego-based Nutrition Business Journal, and most experts predict sales to grow by between 5% and 10% each year for some time to come. Who would have thought aging baby-boomers with hefty savings accounts would be such a boon to food science?

The result is that functional food companies continue to invest in research and development and hire new people, despite the global economic slump. Annika Mäyrä-Mäkinen, senior vice president at Finnish nutriceuticals company Valio, offers an explanation for this trend: "Recession is never seen in this area because people are always eating."

So for a young scientist considering a career in the food science industry, the news is mostly good. The sector is large and there are ample opportunities for lateral movement even though intercompany turnover in R&D staff tends to be low--food scientists apparently like to stay put, according to many of the companies contacted by Next Wave. So in an industry that has lots of variety, from heavyweight multinationals to fast-moving biotechs, identifying a niche that's right for you is critical.

Although they all look for similar qualifications in job candidates, each company operates differently. Small companies tend to rely on licensing agreements and collaborations with larger companies or university scientists to exploit their research and push it forward--so there can be fewer opportunities for hands-on bench work. Large companies conduct more research in-house, and of course there is much more room to move into managerial or marketing positions.

The Little Guys

The biotech company Probi is just a short walk from Sweden's Lund University. The company employs only 17 people. Six of them have doctoral degrees and all of them are Swedes. But their disciplinary backgrounds are varied and include microbiology, food technology, nutrition, biochemistry, and medicine.

Small, however, doesn't mean weak. The company has 60 patents on various probiotic bacterial strains. Probi scientists work very closely with academics at Lund University to identify and evaluate bacterial strains for their probiotic potential, says Per Bengtsson, Probi's director of research and development. Scientists at the company play more of a managerial role--they evaluate research, set priorities, and plan projects, among other tasks.

The company's most well-known bacterial strain is included in a probiotic juice, called Pro Viva, and yoghurt. These products, however, were developed jointly with partners that manufacture the products and license Probi's technology.

Probi has plenty of competition. Nestlé and Helsinki-based Valio, for example, also have popular probiotic products on the market. Each company has carved out its niche in different countries. Right now, Probi and Valio products are mainly sold in Scandinavia, whereas Nestlé dominates the French and German markets. This is partly because the laws governing health claims on food differ dramatically among countries. Some laws are so strict that they deter companies from entering certain markets. Sweden, for example, demands separate clinical studies for each product containing a specific nutraceutical ingredient. The Netherlands is almost as tough--all health claims must be backed by scientific evidence--whereas regulations in France and the UK are more lax.

EU regulators are in the process of establishing a single set of rules for all member countries. But in the meantime, food companies in Scandinavia have turned tight regulation into a marketing tool. Companies there are most interested in licensing their technology because it's backed up by published research. Group Danone, for example, recently struck a licensing agreement with Probi for one of its patented lactobacillus strains.

The fact that industry giant Danone has joined forces with Probi is no wonder--there's lots of evidence to support Probi's health claims. A placebo-controlled study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year, for example, showed that Probi's Lp 299v strain can reduce levels of fibrinogen and leptin in smokers--factors that when elevated are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The research was funded and conducted jointly by the company, the Regional Center for Atherosclerosis Research in Szczecin, Poland and the Polish Society for Atherosclerosis. Other clinical studies have shown that patients with pancreatitis and those undergoing liver transplants or other major abdominal surgery who also ate food containing lactobacillus Lp 299 suffered fewer postoperative infections than patients on a normal hospital diet. Although Probi supplied Lp 299, these studies were conducted and funded by other institutions.

Even though less than 10% of Valio's net turnover comes from functional foods, these products are an important part of the company's business. Out of 4000 employees, 120 are involved in research and development, says Mäyrä-Mäkinen. About one-third of these work on developing new products. Valio's functional food research is also focussed on probiotic bacteria that the company has shown to be effective in soothing various gastrointestinal ailments. Some of this clinical research is conducted in-house, and some in collaboration with various universities. "We have nearly 200 articles published on the positive effect of Lactobacillus GG, that's really the reason we are so successful in licensing," Mäyrä-Mäkinen adds.

Perhaps best known for its cholesterol-lowering margarine, Benecol, Raisio Group is another relatively small Finnish company. Its main products are a line of heart-healthy foods containing beta glucan or--like its latest product, a type of pasta--stenol ester. The company has three divisions and about 200 people working on research and development, says Jukka Kaitaranta, vice president of business development. The company tends to hire scientists straight out of university and they then have the opportunity to earn their doctoral degrees by conducting research at Raisio. As with other companies, some of their scientists work on quality control and other issues, and Raisio often relies on help from researchers at institutions such as the University of Helsinki to conduct company research.

The Big Guys

Seeing an opportunity for growth, heavyweights such as Unilever and Nestlé have jumped on the functional food bandwagon in the last few years. "All these companies are trying to get into faster growth-rate and higher-margin categories," says Warburg Dillon Read food analyst Mark Lynch.

But they don't like the appellation. "We don't deal so much in functional foods," says Edward Fern, a nutrition scientist with Nestlé. "People don't buy our products for their function," he explains, "they choose us first for the food; function is secondary." And Jan Weststrate, director of the Unilever Health Institute adds: "It's such a clinical term. We prefer to call them healthier foods."

Nevertheless, claims backed by scientific evidence are quickly becoming the industry mantra--it's the only way for a product to succeed in an intensely competitive market, say companies.

Both Nestlé and Unilever have centres dedicated to nutrition research and development. And like the smaller companies' employees, scientists come from a range of disciplines, not just food science. Nestlé's nutrition research centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, employs about 650 people, 300 of whom have doctorates. They focus on probiotics, skin care, fatty-acid profiles in cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. But "we don't study food as pharmacy," says Fern, rather as prevention.

Unilever's research centre on nutrition and health is located in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands. Fifty-nine of its 125 employees have doctoral degrees. All the company's health-related research is conducted at this centre, which focuses on cardiovascular health (see profile of Joris Kloek), weight control, and the nutritional needs of developing countries, says Weststrate. The research team is split into groups. One team delivers the scientific proof for products, one turns scientific insights into product realities, a communication group develops supporting material for product launches, and another group interfaces with experts outside the company.

Getting a Job

All companies look for strong academic qualifications and published papers when they're evaluating potential job candidates. When it comes to personality, the most important characteristic, echoed by everyone that Next Wave spoke with, is the ability to work in a team. Because getting a product to market is a group effort, "You have to be able to get along with people," Weststrate highlights.

Functional Foods--Some Recruitment Sites

"We want people to be really good in their field and demonstrate initiative and breakthrough thinking," he continues. "People also need to be able to switch gears quickly," he adds. Unlike academia, projects may have a short life span and can be dropped as business interests shift (see profile of Tarja Suomalainen). Fern echoes this sentiment and adds: "You have to have an open mind and be able to admit that you were wrong. People who have strong and inflexible opinions are not very good scientists."

Nonetheless, "We look for strong personalities," says Valio's Mäyrä-Mäkinen. "You have to be stubborn, creative, and independent, otherwise you can't push an idea through the organisation."

For the Rennes, France-based company Nutrition et Santé, a division of Novartis, self-confidence combined with humility is also important. But there's another characteristic that's high on their list--one that perhaps only the French could demand: "They must also have sensitivity to taste. We ask them whether they cook, and they must like our products," says Phillipe La Droitte, director of R&D at the company.

One potential difficulty for job seekers is that most companies report very little turnover of staff. Even Nestlé, with its large research centre, says that only about 5% to 6% of its staff turns over each year.

Only Unilever reports relatively high churn--although it still isn't big enough for Weststrate. "We continuously hire new people," he says. "They bring the latest insights from academia." At Unilever there is a core of people who have been with the company for several years, the expertise holders. But Weststrate would like to have 25% to 30% turnover of people in temporary jobs. "It's the only way to have a continuous influx of new ideas," he adds. In fact, his group hired 10 new people in the first quarter of this year alone, two of whom had PhDs.

Like other large companies, Unilever hires scientists at all levels, from recent graduates to people with postgraduate degrees and established careers. Weststrate's team comes from all over the world and their backgrounds range from molecular biology to engineering. Smaller companies such as Valio and Raisio tend to hire younger people and train them throughout their time with the company. They are also far less international, recruiting mostly in their country of location.

Once you do find a job in the sector, everyone agrees that the future looks bright. "This field uses old technology in a new way which is very exciting," says Mäyrä-Mäkinen. When it comes to disease, adds Weststrate, "the focus has been on pharmaceuticals. But in this field you have the possibility of working on the same issues except the message is more positive. We're not talking about disease and death; our products are about better health. Our message is one of optimism."

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