“One of the things people should know about food science is that we generally start out as people who like to cook and like to give people food that is wholesome and nutritious,” says Deirdre Ortiz, head of Kellogg’s global wheat program.
Deirdre Ortiz — or as her colleagues call her, Dr. Wheat — is shaping the way people eat breakfast and snacks.
A global expert on cereal at Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich., Ortiz leads research on making healthy — and tasty — snacks for the cereal company, specializing in wheat and flour quality, as well as baking and technical troubleshooting. She likely had a hand in preparing something you eat.
“Food science has, in general, provided a safe food source for American consumers for a long time,” Ortiz, 55, said. “One of the things people should know about food science is that we generally start out as people who like to cook and like to give people food that is wholesome and nutritious and add value to their day-to-day life.”
Michigan is home to thousands of farms — about 8,000 wheat farmers — that grow wheat along with corn, soybeans and other row crops like dry beans and sugar beets, according to the Michigan Wheat Program. Farmers in Michigan plant an annual average of 500,000 acres of wheat in the state, with sales of about $218.5 million.
And as anyone who has been there knows just from the smell in the air, Battle Creek is Cereal City.
In an edited conversation, Ortiz talked about the science of food and what makes Michigan’s wheat so distinctive:
Q: Where did the name Dr. Wheat come from?
A: My area of expertise is in wheat, and I’ve led the Kellogg global wheat program for more than 15 years. I’m sort of the go-to person globally for Kellogg wheat. Everybody just started calling me Dr. Wheat or the Queen of Wheat because I’m all about wheat all the time.
Q: How did you end up studying wheat? Most people don’t wake up and say, I’m going to become a wheat expert.
A: I grew up in Kansas. Kansas is a wheat state. Honestly, the majority of the world’s calories come from two grains. They come from either rice or wheat. So 60 percent of the world’s calories come from those two grains, but there’s a lot of spiritual and homey significance to wheat. Baking bread, breaking bread, sharing bread with people. My husband would tell you, I bake all the time. For me, baking is a hobby as well as a profession. Wheat was an obvious choice for me. One of the preeminent cereal chemists of the last 30 years was a man named Dr. Carl Hoseney, and I sent him a letter — this was before email — and said: “Would you take me as your student?” He had me drive out to Manhattan, Kan., he met with me — and the rest is history.
Q: A lot of people don’t think of Michigan as a wheat state. Should they?
A: I think so. There are farmers and growers in Michigan, and who have been growing wheat on family farms for at least 150 years. Most of them are farmers who came over from Europe and brought wheat with them when they came and have been growing wheat since they settled here. In particular, if you look at the history of wheat in Michigan, there’s great numbers of soft white wheat growers that is an unusual kid of wheat that works really well in breakfast cereals, and W.K. Kellogg formulated with those 100 years ago — before the company was even founded in the late 1800s.
Q: Why is Michigan’s wheat distinctive?
A: Michigan generally grows wheat — either soft white or soft red. The soft red is put into a number of baked goods you are probably familiar with, like Pop Tarts, cookies and things like that. Soft white are generally put into breakfast cereals — or other foods that you are familiar with. Soft white tends to be a little bit more palatable to consumers interested in whole-grain products.
Q: There is a lot of conversation about what people eat — and should eat.
A: Many foods that are processed are safer than foods that are not processed. Food science is taking something that might be done in a kitchen and trying to make it on an industrial, larger scale. Cooking cereals is not that easy to do at home. It’s a safe, nutritious way to start people’s day — and end people’s day. There’s actually a lot of people who eat cereal for dinner. I do.
Q: Genetic engineering is maybe something that is misunderstood …
A: I’d say that it’s wholly misunderstood. In fact, at this point, there is no genetically modified wheat on the market.
Q: How do you feel about genetic engineering?
A: As a company, we have made it clear that we’re going to use the best quality grains we can that are on the market. We will use grains that our consumers feel comfortable with. So, in countries where genetic modified ingredients are acceptable from a consumer perspective, we use them.
Q: As a scientist, is genetic modification something that we should be doing — or not?
A: As a scientist, I think genetic modification has reduced our use of pesticides and herbicides and other things that could contribute to environmental challenges and it will allow us to continue to feed the growing population of the world. I think we need to consider genetically modified foods as being OK. Most of us have been consuming genetically modified foods for about 30 years, and we all wear clothes that come from genetically modified cotton. Those things are all good.
Q: What is the fear of genetically modified foods?
A: People fear what they don’t understand.
Q: As a parent of an 11-year-old boy, when I go to the grocery store to buy food — especially grain products — what do I need to know so that what I’m bringing home is healthy?
A: Well, I’m a little biased. We need to take a total energy-in, energy-out approach. If your child is active, getting daily exercise and getting movement in his life, if he has a diet that includes a lot of foods — including a lot of grain-based foods — he will grow up happy and healthy.
Title: Fellow of global research; adjunct professor at Michigan State University
Education: University of Kansas, bachelor’s degree in music; Kansas State University, master’s and doctorate degrees in cereal chemistry
Family: Husband, Jed; 5 stepchildren, 6 grandchildren
Hobbies: Music, gardening, baking, singing
Favorite cereal: Mini-Wheats
License plate: WHEAT DR