Q: What is your current position and what type of work do you do?
A: I am the director of the Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland, Australia. The Centre has about 70 staff and research students and is part of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), which brings together the combined power of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the University of Queensland to tackle the big challenges and opportunities that affect the agrifood sector both locally and globally. My own research work focuses on structure–nutrition relationships in plant-based foods, with a particular emphasis on plant cell walls (dietary fiber) and starch.
Q: When and how did you first decide you wanted to work in cereal and grain science?
A: After graduating as a chemist nearly 40 years ago, I became fascinated with how nature builds structures like starch granules and plant cell walls with such beautiful and subtly diverse architectures from such deceptively simple molecular building blocks. This fascination stays with me to this day and is now complemented by a desire to understand how these and other structures present in plant-based foods are digested and fermented in the gastrointestinal tract to generate nutritional benefits. Since moving to Australia in 2003, much of my work has been on cereals and other grains because of the importance of the sector both to the Australian economy and to human health.
Q: How have you been involved with the Cereals & Grains Association? How has your involvement with the association enriched your career?
A: I have been a member of AACC International, now the Cereals & Grains Association, for 15 years and have been an active participant in many annual scientific meetings, including each of the last three years. One highlight for me is the Starch Round Table meeting held as a satellite to the Cereals & Grains Association Annual Meeting every two years. This is the premier meeting worldwide for starch science and has been a fixture in my diary for many years. Another highlight for me was being named a Fellow of the Cereals & Grains Association at the Cereals & Grains 19 Meeting in Denver, CO, last year. My involvement in the association has been pivotal in my keeping up-to-date with all aspects of grain science and in connecting with many colleagues from diverse backgrounds and countries who share a passion for the science of cereals and other grains.
Q: In 2020, Cereal Foods World (CFW) is focusing on the global food system (GFS). Please offer your perspective on how global societal and technology trends are affecting cereal science and the cereal grain industry overall? How will cereal scientists need to adapt to these global trends?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of how globalized food and other supply chains are. Our interdependence as a global community on grain supply chains has held up well (at the time of writing) despite the restrictions applied to human travel. As the world moves into postpandemic recovery, it will be important to be able to demonstrate the critical role that grains play in the global food system, particularly in addressing the (temporarily sidelined) challenges of global population growth and climate change. Grain scientists have a key role to play in ensuring that the quantity and quality of grains needed for human and production animal nutrition remain sufficient to meet current and anticipated future demands. Of all major food groups, grains are particularly suited to global trade because of their low water content and stability, but attention needs to be paid to achieving an appropriate nutritional profile in final foods, particularly through increased consumption of whole grains at the expense of refined grains.
Q: This issue of CFW explores Food as Medicine in the context of the GFS. Do you have any perspectives to offer on the challenges and opportunities associated with the global expansion of the food chain and the dynamics of the global food trade?
A: Food as Medicine has a nice ring to it, but it is in danger of being devalued by too much marketing hype. The positive role of food in health is primarily one of reducing the risk of developing chronic conditions and diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. The available evidence suggests that these risks arise not from single foods but from dietary patterns, so there is the pressing challenge of determining how to integrate the science of grains for health with all the other food types in typical diets. This whole-of-diet perspective involves defining an appropriate balance between food types for populations in public health messages through to personalized advice for individuals based on genetics and lifestyle. The role of grains in healthy diets is a critical one due to availability, cost, traditional use, and the demonstrated benefits of whole grains. However, to take food to the next level and imply that it can treat a condition like a medicine can be misleading. What we do know is that cereals and pulses with high dietary fiber and protein contents can form the basis for diverse healthy diets, as judged by both observational and intervention nutrition trials. If single foods are promoted to have medicinal actions, we should make sure that the evidence is properly substantiated in scientific trials. Otherwise, we risk the whole grains sector being devalued in the eyes of consumers.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Two areas of science currently intrigue me. One is understanding the mechanisms by which dietary patterns exert their health protective effect. What combinations of components are critical? Does one type of food act synergistically with another to enhance protective benefits? The second is the role of the gut microbiota in mediating nutritional benefits, particularly of grain foods. How are the cell wall and resistant starch “fibers” utilized by the microbiota, what are the consequences for nutrition, and how can we use microbiota fermentation of (grain) carbohydrates as an indicator of both gut and systemic health?