For those lucky enough to have never experienced pantomime, it is a curious British tradition. The plot of a panto is very simple, and focuses on the hero – played by a girl dressed as a boy – and his mother – played by a man dressed as a woman. With the help of various people dressed as animals, the hero eventually wins the heart of another girl – actually played by a girl.
There is always a baddie, whose presence on stage is greeted by boos and warnings from the audience to the hero that “he’s behind you!”
Every panto needs a hate figure, and in our everyday lives food and the science behind it is playing the part well. As the food industry lurches from one scandal to another, it is debatable how low the public’s opinion of food science actually is. It’s probably safe to say that it’s not very high.
Food continues to be singled out by fear-mongering tabloids and the mainstream media: Additives are evil, processed food is the devil’s home-brew, salt is everywhere, children are hyperactive, and Irish pork is poison. Let’s all boo!
Big role to play
Now is the time for industry and academia to work together to improve the image of food science. The science should be championed as the hero, not ridiculed as the baddie.
It is easy to understand why the media has focused so much on food – it is a very emotive and political issue for consumers. And let’s not forget that fear sells. This is being countered by initiatives to improve the image, but these must be complimented and expanded.
The value of impartial/independent science is in providing a lens to focus the debate on food, which impacts on public opinion of the industry. Bottom line: The science must stand up for itself and ensure it gets a fair hearing.
And the field is facing a different challenge in the form of falling numbers of students signing up for food science courses. It seems to a generation of school-leavers that food science has about as much attraction as landing the part of the rear-end of the pantomime horse.
Statistics gathered around the world highlight the problem. A survey published in the IFT’s Food Technology magazine in March 2007 showed a sharp decline over the last five to ten years in the numbers of food scientists in the North America.
The fall in enrolment is being echoed around the world. In the UK, applicants for food science degree courses have more than halved in the last decade. Similar drops are seen in Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.
The implications extend beyond the food industry to the food regulatory environment, and academia. Luckily, the decline has been spotted and initiatives such as the IFT’s Discovery Education program, launched in 2006, and the Institute of Food Science & Technology’s Food science: A special careers supplement published in The Independent newspaper are arresting the slide.
There is still a long way to go, but food science deserves better than the mockery of the masses.
Stephen Daniells is the science editor for NutraIngredients.com and FoodNavigator.com. He has a PhD in chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.
He also once played the part of the back-end of a pantomime horse. It was not a pleasant experience.
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