Food Scientist, Abena Opokua Foli, Talks Food Science and GMOs

Food Scientist, Abena Opokua Foli, Talks Food Science and GMOs
24 min read

According to UN Habitat, by 2030, more than 50% of Africans will live in cities. This means, food consumption in Africa will change considerably over the coming years. Urbanization and growing income per person will increase demand for processed, packaged and prepared foods, as well as high-value foods such as meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruits.

In Ghana, agricultural businesses springing up and expanding to meet this growing demand will require Food Scientists with proficiency in modern food production and food safety technologies.

Today Levers in Heels features Ghanaian Food Scientist, Mrs. Abena Opokua Foli.

Abena Opokua Foli

Abena is a young Ghanaian who is passionate about sharing the Good News of Christ through singing and in writing songs & articles. Yet, she is also equally passionate about food, especially cooking and exploring the different facets of Food Science.

As the elder of two children, she was encouraged to study science at a very early age by her parents, who invested in science books to encourage her to be excited about it. She lived in Ghana until 2006 when she left for the USA to pursue her college education. Prior to that she went to the SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College in Tema, where she studied Biology, Chemistry and Economics at the higher level, as part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

For her college degree, she attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts; the same college that Mrs. Otema Dzandu who was previously featured, attended. It was during her time there while studying Biochemistry that she came across the field of Food Science. After graduating with a Bachelor in Arts degree in Biochemistry in 2010, she went on to pursue a master’s degree in Food Science. In 2012 she graduated with a Master of Science degree in Food Science with emphasis on Food Safety and Microbiology, from the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Since then she has been working in the food industry as a Food Scientist and currently works with Saputo Dairy Foods, USA as a Regulatory Scientist in Dallas, TX.

 

  • What inspired you to head into the direction of Food Science?

“My father was a farmer when we were growing up, so I grew up knowing a lot about agriculture but I knew I didn’t want to have a career in that field per se. My father also taught me how to cook and I became very passionate about cooking and actually thought I would become a chef one day, which I still hope to become. However, in high school, I realized that I really liked the sciences especially biochemistry and always sought ways to combine my passion for food into my science projects.

However, I didn’t know about Food Science as a field or that it was offered in the Ghanaian Universities until the summer of first year in college. That summer while conducting research in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, my mentor for the program advised me that if I wanted to pursue a PhD immediately after my bachelor’s degree, then it should be in a field that I would be excited to wake up every morning for. She asked what I was really interested in because she realized that it was not in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. As I told her about my passion for food and science she suggested that I look into Food science as a field to explore.

After I spoke with my mentor, I researched into which schools offered Food Science degrees and fortunately for me, there was a career fair that same summer where I was conducting research. So I went to those respective tables at the fair to ask if they had a food science summer program so I could better understand what Food Science entailed. Cornell University was the only school present that had one, so I applied, got into the program for the next summer and that was the beginning of my formal academic and career journey in Food Science.”

  • What exactly is Food Science, and why would you recommend this area of study to students in college or university?

“Each time people ask me what I do and I tell them that I am a Food Scientist, they respond by either describing what nutritionists or chefs do. Even though it is a “hardcore” science, it is often looked down upon because a lot of people don’t know what it entails.  

A great definition of Food Science comes from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) of which I am a member of. It describes Food Science as the discipline which draws from many disciplines such as biology, chemical engineering, and biochemistry in an attempt to better understand food processes and ultimately improve food products for the general public. As the stewards of the field, food scientists study the physical, microbiological, and chemical makeup of food. By applying their findings, they are responsible for developing the safe, nutritious foods and innovative packaging that line supermarket shelves everywhere. Therefore, Food Science is not limited to nutrition and culinary science which are all sub-components of this broad field. In lay man’s terms ”it is the application of science; microbiology, biochemistry, chemistry, engineering, nutrition, culinary science to the application of food and food packaging for the creation, maintenance or improvement of foods”. There are multiple facets to this field; Food Microbiology, Food Engineering, Food Quality, Packaging Engineering, Food Technology, Food Chemistry, Product Development, Sensory, Nutrition and Regulatory.

One of things I really appreciate about the Food Science field is that it is very practical. Unlike with my experiences with the biomedical field where I was working with bacteria and yeasts to understand proteins or cells which may or may not be translated into solutions for human health, I can see the immediate effect of what I am doing with Food Science. In my previous role as a product developer, when I was developing a new product I could see visibly how taking out one ingredient or including a new one will have on the organoleptic properties of the food. For instance, if I were to add too much water to my formula when making mayonnaise, I will see the immediate effect of a runny mayonnaise which would not meet customer expectations and could also be more prone to microbial growth because of the increased moisture. If I was assessing the impact of a process on the texture of food, I could evaluate the impact almost immediately after the food has been processed. I don’t have to wait for 5 years or conduct research for 5 years to see how an ingredient or process can affect the food. Yes, there are instances that you might come across this but generally you get a practical response in a short period.

This field is also very exciting because it is constantly changing. Consumer food trends change all the time. For instance in the US, the new trends are for GMO-Free, Organic, Gluten-Free, low calorie and/or fat–free foods. A couple of years ago this was not the case so there are new regulations in place to ensure that food manufacturers are following those guidelines in labeling their foods. This means that when you pick up a product from the shelf and it says that it is Gluten-free the manufacturer has followed the guidelines to ensure the food is Gluten-free and the customer is not being deceived. As consumer trends evolve, these regulations will also evolve resulting in companies changing their formulae, packaging, labels and policies. My current role deals with Food Regulation and ensuring that the foods that my company processes are compliant with the US Food and Drugs Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture or the World Health Organization regulations and guidelines on food. I can tell you that no two days are the same; there is always something new.

The job security in the Food Science field is high because whether people are poor or rich, sick or healthy, they would need food. Food will always be a necessity for mankind and there will always be a need for Food Scientists to ensure that foods are safe, properly regulated and made in an affordable way while maintaining the nutritional components in them even when they are processed.”

  • Do you think your experience of studying in a foreign country and absorbing other cultures has had a positive impact on your studies/career, and why?

“One of the things I am thankful for in studying abroad is the availability of the infrastructure and the technical know-how that has helped me gain a solid foundation in Food Science. Compared to Ghana, the standards for dealing with food here in the US are very strict and complex. Thus being exposed to the myriad of policies, processes and technology involved in launching one product on the market has made me appreciate this field a lot. What I mean is that a lot of food companies we have in Ghana are branch locations of multinational companies based here in the US or Europe. The research and development for the foods that these companies sell to us are not done in Ghana or in West Africa but where the parent company is located. That research and development piece is the bedrock of most food companies and that is where a lot of learning is gained in the field. When that piece is missing from a company, the learning becomes limited. So for instance, a lot of people in Ghana buy mayonnaise but do not know the complex process that goes into making one mayonnaise formula. The bulk of the mayonnaise eaten in Ghana is produced in the US and there is a lot of science that goes into it to even ensure that it doesn’t separate in the heat. Without being a part of that process of researching into it, you will not fully appreciate the science that goes into making the food or you might not formulate the best product because you don’t have the requisite scientific understanding. Honestly, I could have gained the same educational training from either the KNUST or University of Ghana but that technical know-how piece gained from industry especially at the research and developmental stage is still lacking a bit in Ghana.

With regards to different cultures, my Ghanaian upbringing is what has had the most positive impact on my studies and career. I realized early on that there were very good aspects of the Ghanaian culture such as respect for the elderly, politeness, humility, faith, etc., so I held on firmly to it despite those times where I wanted to give that up to be able to “assimilate” into the new culture I found myself in. In those times I quickly realized that I wasn’t being true to myself. If you want to be successful in life, the answer is not to assimilate but to be true to who you are and who God has made you to be. I am proud to be Ghanaian and I make that known everywhere I go and I will not compromise on that just to assimilate and blend in into another culture. Honestly, I have seen that that authenticity gives you a unique brand to sell yourself especially as companies seek to increase diversity in their companies to bring different perspectives to the work place. Of course I have learned a lot from the American culture especially when it comes to time-management, consistency, attention to detail, yet the rich Ghanaian culture and upbringing has had the most positive impact.”

  • What are your career plans for the future? 

“I plan to work in the industry for a while in the regulatory field to gain some more technical expertise. My long term goal by the grace of God is to open a restaurant to put authentic Ghanaian food on the international market here in the US, but with world class finesse. I also desire to open a food company in Ghana which processes Ghanaian food to cut down the time we spend cooking but also make it affordable without compromising on nutrition, so that the lay Ghanaian can afford it without worrying about compromised nutrition.”

  • What do you think sets Food Science apart from other Sciences?

“It is a very practical field which deals with one of the necessities of mankind –food- and it is very diverse. You don’t have to be restricted to doing product development; you can explore all the different facets of food science and still have a relevant job that makes a direct impact on the lives of customers and consumers. For instance, although my educational background was not in food chemistry which is the background of most product developers, I was able to move from food microbiology into product development and learnt a lot of things on the job given the practical and hands on nature of the work. Now I am doing something more related to my background but there is that flexibility to move across the fields with the on job training I am receiving.”

  • What are the different job prospects Food Science students have upon graduation?

“Even with a bachelor’s degree in Food Science, students can work directly in the industry in any of the subfields I had aforementioned, because most of the training and learning is on the job. You can’t always predict how food or microbes related to food will behave in the classroom until you work with it. However, there is also room to specialize in any of those fields by pursuing a master’s degree, PhD or both. Often those who go for a PhD or post doctorial education go in with the intention to go into academia to teach.”

  • What aspects of Food Science do you love the most? Have there been any instances of your work where you have felt you have made a difference?

“I really enjoy product development because it is similar to cooking which I am very passionate about, except it is very technical. For me it combines the best of both worlds; cooking and science. I also enjoy regulatory science because it deals with ensuring that food manufacturers are complying with established governmental guidelines that protect consumers and customers. I believe this aspect of Food Science is very important because the food that you eat affects the quality of life that you have and if guidelines are not put in place, the food you eat can be corrupted, which will in turn affect you and your health. My friends don’t like to eat processed foods around me because I am always reading nutrition facts and ingredient listings and deterring them from eating foods which they would usually love to eat or drink. For me, the ability to help my family and friends make better informed choices about the foods they consume is the best part of my job. I have begun to see a positive difference in the choices they make when it comes to food and that excites me.

Currently, I am trying to get more Ghanaian women interested in Food Science by mentoring and coaching those I come into contact with on what the field is about and how to be successful in it.”

  • Finally, what do you make of the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or DNA into agricultural productivity in Ghana?

“I believe the best way to address this question is to first let the reader understand what GMOs are. In the lay man’s terms “they are organisms in which a piece(s) of DNA has been introduced to induce the production of enzymes, with the intended effect of eliciting beneficial traits in or around them”. When it comes to food, GMOs deal with introducing foreign DNA into plants or animals to gain beneficial traits such as drought or pest resistance, increased yield or delayed ripening. With this in mind you would expect that there would be no opposition to the use or consumption of genetically modified foods, right? In Europe, there is strong opposition toward GMOs such that foods that contain GMOs must be labeled as such, and these types of products are usually not patronized. In America, there is growing opposition to GMOs with consumers advocating for labeling of foods that have been genetically modified. However, this has been met with fierce opposition from food manufacturers who would suffer serious losses if this were to happen. Truth is, you will find renowned scientists on both sides of the fence when it comes to the GMO debate. Personally, I am on the opposing end because of its possible negative effects on farmers, consumers and the environment.

Disclaimer: My responses do not reflect that of my company and are merely my views on the matter as both a scientist and a consumer.

As the daughter of a farmer, I am very sensitive to issues that affect farmers and also because agriculture is the backbone of the Ghanaian economy. In Canada and in the USA, there are detailed stories of farmers who either lost their forms and thus livelihood, or were forced to give up their non-GMO seeds because they refused to plant GMO seeds. What these farmers failed to account for in refusing to plant those seeds was the role of Mother Nature in agriculture; birds, animals and the wind are always pollinating seeds from one farm to another. Therefore, GMO seeds from a neighboring farm were transferred to the non-GMO farm and sprouted resulting in sections of the non-GMO farm becoming GMO. Now you can see the challenge that it would present to these farmers because you can only plant GMO seeds by directly buying it from the corporations that make them, else you are liable to be sued. These corporations who are already on the prowl to get their seeds to all farmers send their agents to test the fields of non-GMO farmers and when that section of the non-GMO farm which is now GMO is tested, the corporation threatens the farmer to either convert their farm to GMO seeds or be sued for illegally planting their GMO seeds. Often these farms do not have the resources and lawyers that the big corporations have to defend themselves. Those who are adamant about not planting those non-GMO seeds are sued and forced to lose their farms.

This happens in Canada and America where farms are as big as football fields. But what happens to our farmers who own an acre or two and have their whole families depending on that small farm? Unlike in America and Canada where there are government subsidies for farmers and other financial incentives, what government incentives and subsidies do our farmers have? Also, these GMO seeds are designed in such a way that pest and insect control measures are tailored to the introduced DNA. Therefore, farmers become very limited in the technologies they can use to tackle this issue except they buy directly from the big corporations.

As a consumer, I have concerns about the long term effects of introducing varied foreign DNA into my body without long term studies on the effects of the introduction of these DNA into human health. I personally choose to err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to new technologies, particularly when long term studies have not been conducted on them. For instance, when food suppliers want to introduce new ingredients, they provide documentation to the FDA certifying and showing that those ingredients would have no adverse effect on the human health at the proposed usage level without conducting any long term studies. Usually these studies are done on rats or other animals. However, over time the FDA issues warning about the safety of some of these ingredients which were once certified as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). This is what happened with aspartame; an artificial sweetener used in a lot of soft drinks, which is now known to be carcinogenic.

How do we know this will not happen 5 years down the line with GMOs? Until that is done, I would personally prefer not to be used as a guinea big for that experimentation and neither would I want my friends and family to be used too. Also, when GMO foods become common on the market, they are going to drive organic or non-GMO food prices up as they have done in America because you are going to have a limited supply trying to meet a large demand. How many people would be able to afford the organic foods? There is a database called the verified non-GMO project which keeps track of all non-GMO foods to enable consumers make better and informed choices about what they are consuming.

Finally, studies have shown that with the advent of GMO foods, crop varieties which occurred naturally due to pollination and selective breeding have reduced. This is a concern for our environment because that variety was not just important for humans but for the whole ecosystem. We don’t know how we are affecting it by reducing all the different species of corn or soy or wheat from the environment. We also do not know how the introduction of different foreign DNA might be creating mutations in plants or animals which feed on these plants leading to insect resistance to insecticides etc. These are all possible scenarios which could be happening but as aforementioned without long term studies, all these would not be properly evaluated.

The intention for GMO sounds good but for now, until all these concerns are addressed I would highly suggest we learn from Europe and say no to GMO foods.”