White coat warrior for food

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Related tags: Food science, Nutrition

Academics either fight shy of the media or make a hash of talking about food science. But not Jeya Henry. Elaine Watson surrendered to his enthusiasm

Whether it's poisoning our kids with additives, fiddling with plant genes or sending us all to an early grave with a touch of partial hydrogenation, the food industry is public enemy number one for the media. And who is wheeled out to defend it?

"People that don't have a clue what they are talking about half the time," observes Professor Jeya Henry, one academic who is "more than happy to raise my balding head over the parapet"

Henry, professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University and a Royal Society visiting professor at the Chinese University, Hong Kong, has spent more than 20 years bridging the gap between academia and industry and increasingly, the media. This has taken him from exploring the development of high energy food for refugees and the dietary needs of the elderly, to energy metabolism and body weight regulation.

Unfortunately, he says, many academics either don't want to engage with the media or make a bad job of it because they are poor communicators. "It frustrates me that academics don't play a more active role, especially when there is so much nonsense about food in the press. Where are the card-carrying nutritionists when you need them? If the qualified people keep their mouths shut when some food-related scare hits the headlines, you get this vacuum and that's when all the charlatans and pseudo-nutritionists come crawling out."

Having said that, the food industry does not always help itself when it comes to raising the scientific quality of the debate, says Henry, with its constant references to removing "nasties" from our food and its opportunistic decision to jump on the anti-GM bandwagon despite having no firm scientific evidence that there was anything wrong with it.

While a lot of the flak fired at the industry from the media and pressure groups alike is "thoroughly undeserved", it is not always as pure as the driven snow, he points out. "You have got to wonder about the ethics of large multinationals going into developing countries and plundering their natural resources and then making a fortune out of their ingredients because they have got the money to do the clinical trials to prove that they can help in weight management or something else."

Likewise, it is typically only the multinationals that have the cash and the wherewithal to do the relevant toxicology assessments to get these ingredients through regulatory hurdles like the Novel Food Regulation, he says.

"Some countries, like India, are getting increasingly wise to companies coming in and doing this, but other places remain very vulnerable. They should get royalties. I really think this is something that the large companies should be thinking about, but many of them really are not."

Meanwhile, marketers, rather than food scientists, represent the public face of the industry and take home the biggest pay checks, says Henry. "Who is valued in these companies? The money is with the marketing and commercial people, not the scientists and the technocrats." Having said that, food is such a political issue, that keeping the science pure and unadulterated by spin is probably wishful thinking, he admits.

It came as little surprise to him, for example, that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) was not overwhelmed with applicants when it advertised for the high profile role of chief executive some months ago. Henry, a former member of the FSA board says: "In a job like this, you don't just have to be a scientist, you have to be politician and a PR expert. You also have to be able to deal with the mandarins. For the money, there are plenty of other options."

The sad thing is that the industry is having great difficulty in recruiting sufficiently technically skilled people with a science background to work in its labs and plants, says Henry. But there has probably never been a more exciting time to work in food science, he says. "I only manage to teach now about three to four hours a week, but I love it. It only takes one lecture to change your life. It happened to me."

Unless European teenagers are inspired to study food science, European companies are going to be left behind in the R&D stakes, says Henry, who recently went on a UK government-funded trade mission to China that took in trips to several academic and industrial organisations.

The perception of China as a producer of high volume, but low-tech goods is completely outdated, he says. R&D spending is approaching $100bn a year and more than 60 universities specialise in food science and nutrition. "In the China Agricultural University's college of food science and nutritional engineering in Beijing, there are 1,000 BSc students, 325 MSc students and 121 PhD students. The numbers are absolutely staggering."

Lurid headlines about the inherent bias in industry-sponsored research notwithstanding, forging greater links between academia and industry should be encouraged, says Henry. "This idea that you are somehow selling your soul if you are engaging with industry really has to change. You're not."

There are, after all, pretty pressing issues to address, from spiralling obesity levels to the time bombs of type two diabetes and Alzheimer's, he points out. Low-calorie cake slices loaded with fat and sugar replacers, traffic light labelling and unscientific nutrient profiling systems that restrict food advertising are not going to solve these problems, he predicts.

Food manufacturers would be better off devoting their resources to helping consumers regulate their blood glucose and arresting cognitive decline, says Henry, who has recently completed research suggesting that very small changes to the diet, if adopted in the long term, could improve blood glucose control and consequently reduce the risk of chronic disease in diabetics and non diabetic individuals (FIHN, Jan/Feb, p40).

Another "hot area" is food intake during pregnancy and how it subsequently impacts on the health and development of children, he says.

Mental health is also a big issue and dietary interventions can make a real difference, he claims. "But there is so little rigorous research in this area. A significant proportion of people will suffer from depression of some sort in their lifetime. Should we just keep giving them Prozac?"

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