December 20, 2019

Lunch with a Food Scientist

Award-winning UMass Professor David Julian McClements

Food tastes sweeter when served on a round plate. People are more likely to order desserts and alcoholic beverages when their waiter is overweight. Crispy foods produce higher-pitched sounds than crunchy foods. Scientists have developed robot guts to study human digestion. These are some of the things you can learn over lunch with UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor of Food Science David Julian McClements, although, he says, “Food scientists don’t often talk about actual food.”

The growing field of food science is the multidisciplinary study—involving chemistry, biochemistry, nanotechnology, engineering, and more—of food, and the application of that science to the foods we put on our plates. McClements, the world’s most highly cited researcher in the food and agricultural sciences, was honored in November in Denmark with the prestigious 100,000-euro Nils Foss Excellence Prize for his pioneering work in food design and nanotechnology. In a quest to gain a broader understanding of the rapidly changing world of science and food, he’s written a book for a general audience, Future Foods: How Modern Science is Transforming the Way We Eat (Springer Nature, 2019). The book explores the science of deliciousness, food gastrology (the behavior of food inside our bodies), food as medicine, and much more. McClements says working on the book left him with a deeper appreciation of the environmental, health, and social aspects of eating.

McClements has been vegetarian for several years, for health, environmental, and ethical reasons. Reading the menu at the campus University Club and Restaurant, he says, “I like how being a vegetarian limits your menu choices,” and orders a quinoa power bowl.

The biggest change to the food of the future will be not what is on your plate, but the science behind it.

Tucking into his quinoa, veggies, and cheese, McClements says he’s impressed with the plant-based Impossible Burger, designed to mimic ground beef. “It tastes great! Something like that could really reduce the impact of the food industry on global warming and the environment.” He also sees a big future for “carneries,” which grow cultured meat in large fermentation tanks (like breweries produce beer now). “Companies are already growing beef, chicken, and fish from animal cells,” he says. “It’s cleaner, safer, and more ethical. You are not killing any animals. Once they get the price down this will be a commercially viable and ethical alternative to real meat.”

McClements concludes his book with a call to scrutinize and debate new food technologies. He’s cautious about claims for superfoods, excited about the enormous potential of personalized nutrition, and open-minded about the possibilities of genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Sipping black tea over lunch, he points out that it’s full of nutraceuticals—bioactive molecules with characteristics similar to both nutrients and pharmaceuticals. Can nutraceuticals such as those in berries, chocolate, or tea really prevent or cure disease? “We don’t have enough evidence yet to say,” replies McClements. “I’m drinking tea now because I was brought up drinking tea in England and it’s a chilly day.”

The biggest change to the food of the future will be not what is on your plate, McClements writes in Future Foods, but the science behind it. Your food may look and taste the same, but you may make some of it with a 3D printer, the fruits and vegetables may come from genetically edited seeds grown on a robotic farm, and the fish and meat may come from a test tube rather than an animal.

McClements believes the overriding challenge for food scientists will remain the same: “We want to make sure we can feed everybody safely,” he says. “Food science is a vastly important, but sometimes overlooked field, and it’s fun. We work with incredibly complex materials and our research has important consequences. I encourage students searching for an interesting and rewarding career to look into food science.”

Julian McClements at lunch