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Finding a Niche in Food and Health Research

Credit: Microsoft Corporation

Employment of agricultural and food scientists is expected to rise over the next decade, modestly but significantly. This increase will result partly from the world's increasing population, but a focus on creating healthy products will also contribute, especially in the developed world. “Food research is expected to increase because of heightened public awareness of diet, health, food safety, and biosecurity,” the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concludes in its latest Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Young scientists interested in working in food research should be prepared to work with the private sector, says Clare Mills of the BBSRC Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Norwich, U.K.

So what exactly will these new food scientists do? Their work probably will resemble the work being done by food scientists practicing today, including three in the United Kingdom we talked to, each with a successful career built on a different disciplinary foundation.

Alison Lennox: Watching nutrition

Alison Lennox (Credit: MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, the United Kingdom.)

Alison Lennox, a principal investigator scientist at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Human Nutrition Research (HNR) in Cambridge, U.K., studies the relationship between diet and health outcomes. Traditionally, scientists doing similar work would try to link particular foods to particular diseases; for example, it has been believed for a long time that high-fiber foods reduce the risk of colon cancer, whereas saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease. But today, many researchers have begun to “move away from specific nutrients and specific foods because we eat a mixture of things together,” working instead on dietary patterns, Lennox says. Lennox studies how well, or how poorly, population cohorts comply with dietary guidelines and attempts to link eating patterns with cancer incidence, blood markers for heart diseases and diabetes, or body weight and blood pressure.

Alison Lennox’s career advice

Interested young scientists need to be skilled at working with numbers for big population surveys, as well as to have strong writing and communication skills, the latter “because [nutrition] is so publicly popular,” Lennox says. People often “say things beyond their data,” which then go on to appear in the news. “This adds excitement, but you've also got to be very careful” not to mislead consumers and patients.

Lennox came to this job with a broad range of experiences. First, she obtained a physiology degree from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, from which she gained an understanding of biochemical functions and their connections to health, she says. Then she earned a postgraduate diploma and then a Ph.D. in nutrition from the University of Cambridge. During her Ph.D., she focused on how different types of dietary fiber affect human colonic function. As a postdoc, she gained clinical trial experience while studying gastrointestinal tract function at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She then returned to the United Kingdom to work at St. Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College (now Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry) in London as a project coordinator for a study of health outcomes associated with low-tar cigarettes.

Three years later, in 1987, Lennox returned to her research on how fiber affects gastrointestinal function as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. She interacted with industry, assessing dietary intakes in small groups to test things such as increasing fecal mass and decreasing cholesterol levels for companies that wanted to see “what effect a new cereal ... had on the gastrointestinal tract,” she says. Feeling drained from “teaching huge numbers of students,” she left the university in 1999 to work at consulting company Cantox in Mississauga, Canada, where she learned about regulatory affairs as she helped food-processing companies win approval for new ingredients from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Starting in 2002, Lennox added one more string to her bow by taking a job at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, for which she coordinated grant funding. Lennox moved to HNR in 2004, leading the Population Nutrition Research group until last year, when she started working part time.

Today, in addition to her dietary patterns work, Lennox is working at the science and policy interface. She helps coordinate a study that “monitor[s] what people are eating around the country” as part of the U.K. National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which aims to provide new scientific evidence to inform dietary advice and public health policy. Lennox is also involved in efforts to communicate research findings on the role of nutrition in child development to the public and policymakers as part of the British Nutrition Foundation.

Phil Cox: Researching new ingredients

Phil Cox (Credit: University of Birmingham)

As a lecturer and head of the Bio-Food Research Group at the Chemical Engineering Department in the University of Birmingham, Phil Cox’s area of research is food structure and processing. He is figuring out how to replace oils and fats in products without changing the products’ taste and feel, by using new microstructures. With funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Cox is, for example, encapsulating tiny droplets of air in a protein coating so that they look and act like oil droplets but without the calories.

In other parts of his research, science intersects psychology and marketing. Cox investigates whether “we can get over the public opinion that the low-fat option is always going to be inferior,” he says. In one project funded by his department, he's trying to see if low-fat ice cream can ever match the sensation of the full-fat product. In collaboration with psychologists, he uses various techniques to gauge his new ice cream's appeal.

Phil Cox’s career advice

As in many other fields, it can be difficult to find out “who's doing what in the area you want to be in,” Cox says. This makes networking critical. Attend relevant “conferences and career fairs and talk to everyone. Then follow up.”

Cox obtained a biology degree at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom and went on to do a biochemical engineering Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham where he measured the growth of filamentous fungi in solid pastes using image analysis and fluorescence microscopy. After graduating in 2000, he held three postdoctoral positions at Birmingham studying biochemical processes through which foods are “properly sterilized, or pasteurized,” he explains. “We developed ... sensors that went in test foods that told us if they were safe.” He took his current position in 2009. Then, seeing his biochemical engineering and food-safety research experience as a natural fit for his growing interest in diet food research, he entered the field with funding from the food industry.

Today, Cox teaches chemical engineering and specialist courses in food engineering to master's degree students. Because his research is geared toward product development, he also routinely collaborates with government regulators, clinicians, and scientists working in industry. Cox says the work requires creativity -- good, original ideas -- and the ability to present his work to a broad range of people.

Clare Mills: Preventing disease

Clare Mills (Credit: Institute of Food Research in Norwich, the United Kingdom)

Clare Mills’s career advice

Young scientists interested in working in food research should be prepared to work with the private sector, Mills says. Most often, food research is applied and requires industry collaboration; a Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowships in collaboration with industry are great ways of getting experience, she adds.

Clare Mills has been heading her own group at the BBSRC Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Norwich since 1999, researching what makes some foods more allergenic than others. Certain protein structures are common to many food allergens; Mills wants to understand how these are formed during cooking and how they disassemble during digestion. “Peas are picked before they're mature, and we tend to eat them boiled, whereas peanuts" -- another legume -- "we eat after they're mature, in roasted or fried form,” she says. Although roasting adds flavor, the underlying biochemical change may increase allergenic properties.

After graduating from the University of Bristol with a degree in biochemistry, Mills obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1984 from the University of Kent, both in the United Kingdom, researching the effect of xenobiotics on gene expression in the liver. Toward the end of her Ph.D., she decided she had “had enough working in the lab,” Mills recalls, so she took a job at the U.K. government's Department of Health, advising regulatory committees on food-ingredient safety. Prior to that experience, she says, she “didn't know anything about food.” It didn't take her long to decide that she missed lab work; in 1985 she joined IFR with an in-house fellowship, investigating how gut epithelial cells interact with microbes. There, she had many interactions with IFR allergens researchers, which led her into her current research and position as head of protein structure and proteolysis research.

Part of Mills’s job is to provide scientific data to regulatory agencies such as the U.K. Food Standards Agency, which uses the information to assist the clinical community and allergic consumers in issuing and understanding precautionary labels. Her research also has implications for food-processing companies, and Mills runs the food-allergy cluster of IFR's Food and Health Network, which fosters collaborations with food companies.

Some Starters on Food and Health Research


- Grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support research on food, nutrition, and health.

- Current food-related funding opportunities from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

- The U.S. National Science Foundation funds a range of relevant biological science areas, including biomolecular dynamics, structure, and function, as well as cellular processes

- The U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funds food technology and diet and health research

- BBSRC, the Medical Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the Technology Strategy Board in the United Kingdom jointly fund the Nutrition for Life program for academic-industry collaborations to develop healthy and safe food and drinks

- MRC, which funds biomedical science at U.K. universities and global health trials, also has an ongoing call to fund collaborations between immunologists and food allergists

- The World Cancer Research Fund

-Diabetes UK


- Postdoctoral Research Training Program for physicians and Ph.D. holders at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas

- Yale School of Public Health Ph.D. and master's degrees in New Haven, Connecticut

- Ph.D. studentships and postdoctoral fellowships at the BBSRC Institute of Food Research in Norwich, U.K.

- Ph.D. opportunities in the Food, Health and Nutrition section of the University of Birmingham’s Chemical Engineering Department with funding provided by research councils and industry sponsors.

Research Centers

- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

- The Mayo Clinic in Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota

- The Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) in Winnipeg, Canada

- The Food Research Division of Health Canada’s Bureau of Chemical Safety in Ottawa

- University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health

- The Centre for Nutritional Epidemiology in Cancer Prevention and Survival in Cambridge, U.K.

Research networks

- The U.S. Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network

- The International Research Association for Organic Food Quality and Health

- Canada’s Advanced Foods & Materials Network

Further Reading

- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

- The U.K. Food Standards Agency

- Food And Health Research in Europe's (FAHRE's) "Foods and health research needs in Europe: synthesis of thematic experts report"

- FAHRE’s "Mapping food and health research programmes in Europe: synthesis of the 32 country reports"

Rachel Berkowitz is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, U.K.