This month’s feature is a discussion with Julie Emsing Mann, Global Plant Protein Program Manager for Ingredion. Julie is an all-star within the plant-based food movement, combining her passion for a healthier world with a valuable skill-set in food science. She participated in multiple panels as part of the business forum at Plant Based World in 2019 on the topics of the plant-based milk market and the intersection of food science and nutrition.
In this article, Julie elaborates on her personal connection to the food industry and offers a holistic perspective on the how “processed” foods fit in to the future of our food system and world.
How did you first develop a connection to the vegan/plant-based movement and what inspired you to pursue a career in food science?
I would say a few things intersected which drove my connection, but the first, and most powerful driver is my love for animals and my need to promote creature kindness.
I have always had a strong emotional connection to animals, all animals. As a child, during family road trips, I would feel quite sick (guteral) and sad as we would drive past a truck with the animals in cages. I would cover my eyes and turn away. This was not a feeling that was imposed on me from anyone else in my life, it was innate and it emerged very strongly in me. Over time, the need to follow my heart put me squarely in the center of the vegan/plant-based world.
Secondly, health and wellness and clean eating have always been important to me. The vegan/plant-based movement and dietary choices associated can deliver fewer calories and less fat, more micronutrients and phytonutrients, more fiber and a dose of protein. Finally, the last driver for me is that I am a certified food science geek (and very proud of it).
The idea of utilizing plant proteins to mimic dairy products and meat products was completely fascinating to me. About 10 years ago I had data, charts and grids of plant protein sub-units and structures, compared to the traditional proteins in, for example: dairy (whey, casein). I would study how some researchers were unfolding, denaturing, modifying proteins in order to develop more of the properties needed to mimic animal proteins. I couldn’t stop thinking about it: “if I can work on delivering these food products without the animal, think of all the animals I could save.” I am so proud of the individuals and companies who are bring this to life today.
Food Science is not a broadly known career path. (I have been working to try to change that throughout my career with IFT and additional organizations). I honestly uncovered the major at Penn State one afternoon in my dorm room. I paged through the Penn State Course Catalog and found Food Science. I set up an appointment with the department head and 1 day later officially changed my major. At the time, I was a Nutrition Science major due to my passion for understanding the symbiosis of food/nutrient consumption, exercise and body weight. I was over-weight for much of my young life, and this was a goal I decided I was going to conquer. I knew if I learned about nutrition and food composition, as well as biochemistry in the body, I could get myself to a healthy body weight and health status. It was truthfully like identifying a few missing pieces of a puzzle, and putting them all back together. I also found a passion for helping others on this journey.
What projects are you and your team at Ingredion currently working on that you see as having potential to shift the way the traditional food system has operated?
Three major initiatives come to mind:
Building great products with plant derived ingredients.
Using pulses to build out nutrition in formulations containing other things today.
Developing superior applications (dairy alternatives, meat alternatives, snacks/bakery, etc.).
On a more philosophical level, what is the role you see for food scientists and ingredient companies in the effort to create a more healthy and sustainable future?
I feel that food scientists and ingredient companies can be the catalysts to creating a more healthy and sustainable future. They cover both the inputs and the outputs that lead to the consumer. Food scientists have a critical background and training to utilize multi-disciplinary sciences: plant science, engineering, chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry, microbiology to use an integrative approach to solve the emerging and complicated food problems. This includes challenges in feeding the world, preserving the planet (soil, water, land usage), utilizing more efficient production processes (less energy and water consumed), assuring food safety, delivering nutritious foods, as well as food and beverages that delight the palate.
Ingredient companies have the ability to offer a growing number of ingredients, or tools in the tool-box for food scientists and product developers. Ingredient companies bring a breadth of capabilities to the food scientists in Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG), Retail and Food Service. These capabilities include farmer/crop contracts, processing knowledge and know-how, production facilities, supply chain stability and credibility. Additionally, (at Ingredion) we provide: market insights, detailed ingredient functionality, tailored application development, sensory and culinology expertise, and ingredient innovations to facilitate game changing products in the market.
I would also add that there is a great deal of consumer education that needs to be deployed to supplement the progress of the food scientists and ingredient companies. Consumers must understand the “why?” in order to take action. They need to understand where this movement for improved nutrition and sustainability is coming from. Sharing reputable and factual information is important, for example, from sources like the UN Report on Climate change and instructions on effects of adding plants or consuming a plant-based diet. There is a need to pull consumers together in community settings/meetings where they can learn about the positive impact they can make by modifying their eating behaviors. These effects cast a wide net to themselves, their families, the planet, our natural resources, and creature kindness.
Where do you see food science and nutrition intersecting? How do we continue to “process” foods to make them accessible and desirable while also ensuring they are healthy for humans to consume?
“Processing” has been getting a bad reputation, and in my opinion, we need to work to over-turn this thinking and set the record straight. Almost all food is processed in some way before it is eaten. Processing makes foods more edible, palatable and safe, and has preserved it for longer time periods. Mass food processing, scientific and technological know-how, and progress in storage and transportation, have allowed for greater food choices and a more varied diet, increasing the population’s likeliness to get all the nutrients required for good health.
Never in human history have we had such high-quality and safe food so abundant, cheap, and readily available. With a lot of the convenience foods being high calorie/energy dense with long ingredient statements, their easy accessibility may be seen as a mixed blessing for public health in today’s societies. I feel that over the past years, the clean-label movement has driven a more holistic breadth of good choices, but of course, there are still some indulgent treats in the marketplace. For example, observe the airport food selection 10 years, and 5 years ago, compared to today. There are still high caloric/high fat/high sugar options, but there is a great deal of healthier choices available now. As for a category like the emerging meat alternative category, there is already movement to simplify labels, as well as reducing fat and sodium. The technology to produce these products should be embraced, celebrated and advanced, rather than criticized for being “processed”.
Nutrition is about a healthy and balanced combination of foods being consumed by an individual. A consumer is faced with many choices each day, and quite often it is difficult to navigate what they should be eating and how much, in order to maintain a healthy weight and good health status. The food and nutrition science communities should be coming together to create clear planning and messaging for consumers to embrace plant-based inclusion in diets, while balancing the ability to enjoy some treats and food products that are indulgent, or consumed for the enjoyment of eating.
Finally, we’ve joked about the silliness of the over-asked question “which is the best plant-based protein source?”
I know your response is that there isn’t so much a “best” source, but plenty of good options depending on the needs of the particular company/product.
With that in mind, what advice would you offer to the food manufacturer aspiring to make quality plant-based products? What are the right questions they should be asking to find the ingredients that are right for them?
Food manufacturers aspiring to make plant based products need to consider using the right proteins or ingredients for the right need. This would be my list of what a manufacturer should consider before settling on a particular ingredient:
- Consumer trends and desires for products
- Brand mantra (what do they stand for?)
- Flavor profile needs
- Textural attributes
- Functional attributes
- Nutritional composition (amino acid/PDCAAS score)
- Clean label needs
- Allergen declaration
- Cost/lb and cost in use
- Stability and shelf life
- Certifications (Non-GMO, Organic, etc)
- Religious concerns
- Sustainability measures
Big thanks to Julie and her team at Ingredion for the work they are doing to make plant-based food options more nutritional and accessible to the world.
And on a personal note, thank you to Julie for the passion and intention she brings in her efforts each day to help make the world a better place for all living beings!