New UMass Amherst Endowed Professorship Honors Food Science Pioneer Fergus Clydesdale

Fergus Clydesdale

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst food science department recently completed a five-year, $1.8 million fundraising campaign that will establish the Fergus Clydesdale Endowed Professorship in Food Science, honoring one of the campus’s most influential scholars who is an internationally recognized leader and innovator in food science.

Clydesdale, a Distinguished Professor and director of the UMass Amherst Food Science Policy Alliance he founded in 2004, was among the first scientists to integrate food science, nutrition and public policy. He has served as a highly respected advisor to many national public and private agencies on research, product development, scientific policy and regulation to optimize food quality, safety, nutrition and health.

Members of the food science alumni advisory board recently officially recognized that the threshold of $1.5 million required to establish the professorship has been met and exceeded, with about $1.8 million now pledged toward the goal, says Eric Decker, chair of the department.

One of the most popular teachers in the campus’s history, from 1990 to 2008 Clydesdale headed the Department of Food Science, which at the time of his retirement was ranked among the top three university food science departments in the nation for research. He was recognized earlier by the UMass Amherst department with creation of the Fergus M. Clydesdale Center for Foods for Health and Wellness in 2011.

Decker says, “It’s quite an honor both for Ferg Clydesdale and for the person who will be chosen to hold this endowed professorship. It is very prestigious for a faculty member to be able to say you have an endowed chair. This new position gives us the ability to expand into a new area of food science, to partner with industry and to focus on a major goal, which is making the food supply healthier while keeping food affordable.”

This last point is an increasingly important one, the food scientist adds. “We talk a lot to our students about the lower 50 percent, those people who need the most help in eating healthier in an environment that can frankly be elitist. Both the research community and industry are very interested in developing more affordable healthy foods, always remembering that they have to taste good. We can develop the healthiest foods in the world but they can’t help anyone if they aren’t consumed.”

Clydesdale himself says, “This is a great honor, and I am really humbled. I always tell my students to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and that has served me well. Most high points in my life have been the result of associating with wonderful people, and this is no exception.” Clydesdale said his advisor Jack Francis was “a fantastic mentor” whose influence led the young Canadian to leave a promising post in medical research to pursue food science instead.  

Clydesdale, an early advocate of whole grains being part of a healthy diet, says he has focused his work at the interface of food, nutrition and health. “I’ve always felt that it is most important to isolate the healthy components in food in the laboratory, then use the latest technology to deliver more of those to help consumers. The other sciences do it and we food scientists should, too.”

Early in his career, Clydesdale witnessed how food science and technology could be applied to significant health problems. “If you look at how we tackled deficiency diseases in the past, you see that we virtually eliminated rickets and saved millions of children’s lives by adding vitamin D to milk. That was a greatly successful science-plus-policy decision. There’s a similar story with birth defects and folic acid.”

“Now the problems include obesity, rising diabetes rates and heart disease,” he points out. “There is a need to stabilize vitamins and micronutrients, to get more polyphenolics from fruits and vegetables and other nutrients into the diets of a wider range of people worldwide.

“Health and nutrition professionals tell us what problems are there, but it requires food science to solve them, and then it takes industry to turn the molecular solution into real food that people will eat. That’s where food science fits, in my opinion. I am very proud that UMass Amherst has been in the forefront of translating molecular-level research into science based policy, then letting industry develop the foods. We are uniquely good at that, and getting even better under the outstanding leadership of Dr. Decker, our wonderful faculty, students and staff, and our dedicated advisory board.”

Future challenges in food science include helping people to understand that science and technology can help achieve better overall health. “People will stand in line to get a new handheld device,” Clydesdale notes, “but if you change their food with technology they shudder. We need to work through that. Acceptance of technology needs to be addressed because right now, it is a barrier that doesn’t need to be there.”