Stephanie Lopez and Emily Boutcher tend to get fired up when people start talking protein.
“That’s something I have a strong opinion about,” Lopez said.
Lopez and Boutcher are food science chemistry majors at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, a program of study on which the school has placed a major new emphasis.
On Wednesday, the school unveiled a new food science technology lab on the campus.
The effort is backed by some of the biggest names in food and beverage manufacturing in Wisconsin and the world, including Kerry Ingredients, MillerCoors, Palermo’s, Sartori, Campbell’s and CHR Hansen.
Lopez, a junior from Hales Corners, and Boutcher, a senior from Burlington, cringe at the amount of misinformation that is bandied about regarding food.
“So many people I know, they hear about the latest fad diet and they say, ‘This is what you need to do to be healthy,'” Lopez said. “I tell them, ‘What kind of research have you done that proves the information is real?'”
So when someone makes a claim about the latest protein-based diet or someone claims one type of protein is better than another, well, it’s not quite fightin’ words for Lopez and Boutcher, but it’s close.
“Your body doesn’t know the difference between soy protein and whey protein,” Lopez said.
Added Boutcher: “We’re a little bit passionate about this.”
That’s a good thing from the perspective of food manufacturing businesses as the industry faces a growing shortage of food scientists that only promises to get worse in coming years.
“The attractive part of their (Mount Mary’s) program to the industry is the emphasis on chemistry, which studies the foundational composition of foods,” Jack Maegli, director of venture research for Kerry Ingredients, said in an email.
Begun in Ireland as a small dairy business 40 years ago, Kerry is now a global food ingredients company whose North American headquarters are in Beloit.
Kerry employs about 200 people in southern Wisconsin, ranging from food scientists, quality control technicians and technical supervisors to engineers.
“To understand food systems, it is critical to understand the ingredient constituents on a singular and interactive basis, … appreciating the natural chemistry involved,” Maegli said in his email. “With the push toward natural and clean label foods, it is also critical to understand how the natural constituents can … replace the no-longer-attractive chemical additives.”
Among other companies backing the effort is Plymouth-based Sartori Co.
“At Sartori, our cheese is handcrafted by artisan cheesemakers — but everything is rooted in science,” Pat Mugan, chief product development officer, said in an email. “Knowing there is a pool of talented food scientists that we can tap into is vital for our continued growth, not only for us in southeastern Wisconsin, but the entire state and beyond.”
Adding to the mix
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is already world renowned for its food science programs, said Shelley Jurewicz, executive director of FaB, Food and Beverage Wisconsin, an industry cluster organization based in Milwaukee.
UW-Stout and UW-River Falls also have similar programs.
The program at Mount Mary can only help raise awareness that such degree programs exist.
“For students, it’s something that they don’t typically hear about,” Jurewicz said.
Mount Mary’s undergraduate students are all female. Its graduate programs include male and female students. Total enrollment at Mount Mary is about 1,400.
The food science chemistry program is something through which Mount Mary says it can educate and empower a new generation of women leaders in a subject area that is necessary to sustain and preserve human life: food.
“This emerging and innovative profession combines the study of chemistry, microbiology, biology and statistics,” according to a statement from Mount Mary.
Science and beyond
The program isn’t just about science, said Anne Vravick, a food toxicologist and adjunct professor in Mount Mary’s food science chemistry program.
“We’re not just doing theory. We’re not just teaching the chemistry,” Vravick said. “We’re actually teaching how it applies to life.”
That includes taking responsibility for the safety of the food supply.
“I try to teach the students, ‘Yes, you’re going to be working for a company and trying to save that company from recalling a product,'” Vravick said. “But you’re also not going to forget about that child that had e-coli poisoning or that man who had an allergy to something that wasn’t labeled properly.
“You can understand chemical reactions, but how does that apply to the browning of an apple?” Vravick said.
Food scientists are involved in understanding, for example, how a jar of spaghetti sauce ages.
“It’s been on the shelf for a year. Does it still have the same amount of vitamin A?” Vravick said.
The science applies even at the most basic level, said Jurewicz, who grew up on a farm in Jefferson County.
“Even if you’re buying it at a local farmers market and bringing it home, the science behind making sure that you’ve cleaned that product, how you store that product — there’s been a host of recalls recently, almost all of them directly related to fresh produce,” Jurewicz said.
“We can’t escape the science of this,” she added.
Joe Taschler covers food manufacturing for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.