Department of Food Science Changes Name to Better Reflect Focus

The Department of Food Science has recently undergone a transformation, in terms of the department name, the addition of new faculty, and a change in research focus. The department was formerly the Department of Food Science and Technology, but dropping the term “technology” places the emphasis on the science.

In addition to a new name, Food Science has several new faces. Historically, the department has focused on food safety and food chemistry, but with the addition of several new faculty that focus has expanded to include foods for health. Not to be confused with nutrition, this emphasis describes a national movement whereby scientists are developing ways to deliver nutrient-rich processed foods; faculty in Food Science are researching ways to maximize the health benefits of processed foods.

One of those new faculty is Assistant Professor Vermont Dia, who is researching bioactive compounds from foods. Food bioactives are compounds that have health-promoting, disease preventing, and/or medicinal properties affecting physiological processes in the body, hence associated with some health benefits. He is mostly interested in bioactive peptides and proteins found in cereals and legumes (e.g. soybean and sorghum) and their potential to act as anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive agents.

Since most bioactives are often destroyed during both food processing/storage or digestion, it is important to identify ways to improve their absorption in the gut. One way to address this problem is to encapsulate these compounds so they can survive processing steps and/or the digestion process and deliver their activity to the target cells. Dr. Dia is evaluating delivery systems to encapsulate or protect bioactive compounds.

In April, Dr. John Munafo will join the department as a flavor chemist. The goals of Munafo's research are to identify and isolate novel flavor and functional food ingredients with clear health benefits. As a flavor chemist, he has developed analytical methods for discovery and quantification of taste-active compounds. His academic and industry background as a global flavor chemistry research manager has given him the opportunity to guide research that extends across many disciplines including flavor/food/natural products chemistry, plant science, genetics/molecular biology, microbiology, and human health.

In addition to Dr. Munafo, the department hired a second sensory scientist, Dr. Curtis Luckett, who runs the Sensory Science and Innovation Center (Sensory Lab) and focuses his research on the sensory perception of texture, flavor, and odor. This research is valuable to processors who want to add, or change, ingredients in their foods without changing the food’s properties. Consumers participate in the lab testing to see if they are able to detect the changes.

Dr. Tom Denes, a microbiologist, focuses on molecular microbiology and bacteriophage. Bacteriophage are naturally occurring viruses that infect bacteria. These bacteriophage can be used to control or detect particular food-borne bacteria. Dr. Denes also looks at how the environment or food processing conditions, such as heating, affects the viruses’ ability to identify or infect their specific host bacteria.

Finally, Dr. Scott Lenaghan, a cell/molecular biologist and parasitologist, is researching several issues related to global food security, including parasites in the food and water supply, as well as, utilizing synthetic biology to develop better food crops. Adding Lenaghan completes the food safety team; the department now examines food safety from the perspective of food-borne viruses, bacteria, and parasites. In addition, by engineering synthetic biology tools his team is well positioned to impact global food security.

Department Head Mark Morgan is encouraged by the changes in the department name, addition of new faculty, and expansion in research focus. “The younger faculty are working hard to build their careers and are seeking new funding opportunities, especially at the federal level,” Dr. Morgan says. This group of scientists is also ready to train the next generation of food scientists; new faculty in the Department of Food Science are especially eager to mentor students at the PhD level, elevating the reputation of the department.