During 50th anniversary celebration, food science program reflects on past and looks to future

The program looks forward to the future of food science in nutrition, preservation and modern technology.

It began as a patchwork project of sorts — faculty pulled from various programs, scattered throughout several buildings. Now, the food science program boasts dozens of faculty, hundreds of students and continues to educate students on issues related to food production as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The program’s beginnings were humble. In the wake of other prestigious universities forming food science programs in the ‘60s, MU began its own, taking faculty from similar, existing programs and assigning them to the new food science division.

“Animal husbandry provided folks that were interested in eggs, milk — dairy — and meat,” associate professor Andrew Clarke said. “Horticulture provided a gentleman who was interested in plant and biology subjects. We had somebody in the area of nutrition and sensory evaluation that came out of the Gwynn Hall area. So basically think about meat, eggs, dairy — which has been a fairly large emphasis — and that became the nucleus for food science.”

Many faculty who were present for the program’s founding were commodity-focused; that is, their area of expertise was a certain food, rather than a broad discipline like many faculty now possess.

“Food science can be viewed by commodities — meat, dairy, plant, eggs, etc. — or you can look at it from a disciplinary point, like the chemistry of all foods, or the microbiology, or the technology aspect, sensory science,” said Ingolf Gruen, chair of the food science program and one of the faculty in charge of organizing the celebration. “Now, it’s usually a mix of people that you find in food science programs.”

Since that initial mixture of programs that was its genesis, the food science program has been driven by evolving technology toward new goals; in fact, modern food technology was already well on its way by the time the program formed.

“The Institute of Food Technologists was established many decades before, in 1939, so awareness of food technology and so forth had been around for a long time, but actual departments at land-grant institutions took a bit of time to gel,” Clarke said.

The program commemorated the occasion with a series of special events from Sept. 1-2, and both current students and alumni were invited to attend. An open house began the festivities Friday night, followed by a social in the foyer of Eckles Hall. The open house allowed older alumni to get a look at the new facilities and space that the program has added in recent decades.

“There have been some modifications, some additions, that our alumni do not know about,” Gruen said. “They can see the new laboratories — new, relatively speaking. New for them. So our students and our grad students will be there as well and find out what kind of research they’ll be doing.”

After dinner in the W.C. Stringer wing, one of the more recent additions that alumni got the chance to tour, faculty and administration unveiled a plaque celebrating the program’s 50 years. That plaque now hangs outside of Gruen’s office.

After breakfast the next morning, the open house continued into the afternoon and focused on current and incoming students, including a presentation on the “Past, Present and Future of the Food Science Program,”

Now, Clarke and Gruen, who have been a part of the program for 30 and 21 years, respectively, are working with fellow faculty and students toward even more breakthroughs in food preservation, including “clean labels” and, most importantly, working with nutritionists.

“I think as it comes to the future, this whole concept of ‘let thy food be thy medicine’ — the idea of integrating food and nutrition with medicine and prevention of disease by proper nutrition — that then entails that we have to have the proper foods to have proper nutrition,” Gruen said.

Despite these new challenges, the program continues to focus on the constant issue of food preservation and safety.

“We still have concerns about preservation and so forth because we anticipate a very strong growth in the population and we’ve got to not only deliver good, nutritious food, but it definitely has to have the safety component and it has to last long enough to get from point A to point B,” Clarke said.

As the program continues to focus on these issues using primarily Missouri-based food products, according to Gruen and Clarke, they educate students to work with any commodity around the country.

“The idea is that the fundamentals of the program teach you about chemistry, about microbiology, about the transitive science that you might need to apply, and now you just change it to whichever commodity company that you wind up working for,” Clarke said.

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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