Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass Food Science Department unveils new research facility

By Brian Canova

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The food science program at the University of Massachusetts recently unveiled a new state-of-the-art, 7,800 square foot research facility focused on discovering how nutritional value and accessibility to healthy foods can be improved in the supply of food at the national and international level.

The aim of the Fergus M. Clydesdale Center for Foods for Health and Wellness will be to learn and discover new components of healthy foods, according to Dr. Eric Decker, head of the UMass Food Science Department. Decker clarified that the food science department doesn’t develop food products. Rather, it develops technologies to allow companies supply healthier foods.

“The pendulum is shifting towards making food healthier,” he said. “Part of the challenge is that you still need to make it accessible because the major health problems in the U.S. are among families of low income.”

Decker explained, that while the rise in popularity of organic food has been very successful, these foods are often unaffordable for lower income families. He said that the problem of “food deserts” in inner cities – where there may not be any grocery store for a family to shop at – severely limits access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This leads to a dependence on convenience stores and fast food restaurants as the primary food source, he said.

Decker also added that, on a per capita basis, food is cheaper than it was 100 years ago, with less than 10 percent of a household’s income being spent to feed the family.

The new facility is located in the Chenoweth Laboratory and is named after Distinguished University Professor Fergus Clydesdale, retired food science researcher and Decker’s predecessor as department chair.

The six labs in the $5.6 million facility are each named after science industry partners: Pepsico, Kraft and ConAgra, as well as alumni and major donors Charlie and Mickey Feldberg, Gil and Carol Leveille and Karakian “Cutty” Bedrosian.

The Food Science department raised $1.8 million over four years for the facility, which was then matched by the University for the second phase of the project. The University had previously spent $2 million in the project’s early planning and development stages, which began in September 2008. Construction on the facility began in June 2010 and was completed this past January.

The new facility comes just in time. According to Decker, the food science program has tripled in size in the last five years.

There are two major reasons for its growth. The first, he said, is “an increased awareness of foods and health, and the second is that food science has always had excellent job placement with average starting salaries of $50,000.”

Sixty students have been admitted for next year’s incoming freshmen class, the department’s highest number to date, which has risen in each of the last three years, said the department chair.

“Traditionally when the economy is bad, interest in food science increases,” said Decker. “It truly is a major where you can get a job right out of school.”

Decker said that the industry also supports the department to train students to become future top notch scientists and future employees to their companies after graduating from the program.

The UMass Food Science Department was ranked number one in the country, according to a 2010 ranking by National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences. Decker added that the department has boasted the top score on student satisfactory surveys administered at the end of a student’s senior year for five out of the last six years.

The food science department at UMass has existed since 1918, and is the oldest in the country, according to UMass.edu. Decker explained that the program began because of a need to learn and teach how food could be better preserved.

Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected]

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