A systems and community perspective on food science

October 13, 2021

By Johan B. Ubbink

Job Ubbink.

This World Food Day, we are each being asked to consider our role in the global food system. The theme of “Our actions are our future” is a plea to acknowledge that what we eat and how we eat have an impact on the planet.

As a food scientist, I am interested in understanding the importance of food for people — both for its nutrition and how it shapes people's lives. Food and the way we prepare and share it has always been an essential component to a flourishing community. In recent years, societal perspectives on food have shifted profoundly. Food is coming to the forefront of our consciousness; it’s no longer an afterthought as it was for many years. We have grown accustomed to a world where food is abundant and relatively inexpensive, a unique situation in the long history of mankind. But there is growing awareness that we are reaching our limits of what the current system can produce without irreparably damaging the environment and we are furthermore facing major diet-related health issues in our society.
It’s a period of major societal and environmental challenges, and it is starting to drive widespread change. This year’s Borlaug Dialogue — the annual tribute to our most celebrated alumnus and “Father of the Green Revolution” Norman Borlaug — is about the food system transformation gaining momentum. We see evidence of this transformation every day. Our perspectives on food are changing. Sustainability is no longer a buzzword, it’s an expectation. People are signaling that they want to eat things that are not only good for them as an individual, but that contribute to a sustainable food system and equitable society.

Food science is essential in enabling this transformation of the food system to be more sustainable. Advances in agricultural engineering and plant science are leading to novel crops; for instance, pennycress that is being studied at the University of Minnesota. The hardy oilseed is a promising cover crop for the Minnesota winter, protecting soil and water quality. Yet it is still unclear how to utilize its oils, proteins and fibers in foods that are nutritious, healthy and appealing. This is where our food scientists come in. They are researching the molecular properties of these constituents and their impact on food texture, sensory aspects and, in close collaboration with our nutrition researchers, assess their role in a healthy and nutritious diet. In doing so, they are laying the foundations that are needed to develop novel food products and processes.

Broadening our perspective on foods requires decoupling the science from our particular cultural lens. At its core, food science is about people: understanding their culture and lifestyle and providing the ingredients and foods that support these. Food isn’t just about flavors, nutrients and functionality — it’s about customs and cultures that differ widely between communities. Food isn’t made in a laboratory — it’s made in kitchens, using recipes and techniques passed down through generations and influenced by heritage, religion and geography. Food science is not only about exploring the molecular science of foods, but also about engaging to understand the wider perspectives and experience of the people we aim to support. 

Understanding food’s social and cultural roles also creates economic opportunities. Here in Minnesota, we are fortunate to have access to a vast array of foods from different cultures — from the Native foodways to people who have recently come to our state. For recent immigrants, making and selling the foods that they know from home is one of the most straightforward ways to engage with their new community. For food companies, understanding the cultural context of foods is rapidly becoming essential to bringing products to market. Food science sits at the intersection of these developments as the pivotal discipline that connects agriculture and society. By providing the science and technology to transform novel and traditional crops into food, we support the food industry as well as smaller producers and entrepreneurs.

The same thing that drove Borlaug to save lives by improving crops and transforming agriculture is what drives the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences today. We’re on a mission to inspire minds, nourish people, build community and enhance the natural environment. Our Food Science and Nutrition students are on the forefront of this mission, but everyone can play a part in creating a more sustainable food system.

There is not a simple answer to the challenges we face, and no single diet or lifestyle is representative of all of us. Humans are omnivores: We thrive on diverse diets. My hope is that greater awareness of our impact helps us appreciate the holistic value of our food. By eating with respect and with gratitude, we can continue to honor Borlaug’s legacy at every meal.

Johan B. ("Job") Ubbink is Professor and Head of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS).