From ”cook and look” to mechanistic food science – University of Copenhagen

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24 August 2017

From ”cook and look” to mechanistic food science

Birthday interview

Professor of Food Chemistry Leif Skibsted from the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen will turn 70 on 28 August 2017, and to mark the occasion he has a big wish: More stable resources for financing long-term food science research, which has never been more important than today, as it is estimated that we will have to feed close to 10 billion people by 2050.

“The greatest food science challenge is to provide enough food for the world’s population, because in the next 50 years we need to produce as much food as mankind has produced since we left the hunter-gatherer stage,” says Professor of Food Chemistry Leif Skibsted, who turns 70 on 28 August 2017.

Leif Skibsted became a professor in 1992 and received the title at a time when food science was facing a major development.

“At the end of the 1980s, it became a paradox that Denmark – which is so dependent on food exports and produces food for three times as many people as the population – had almost no public food science research,” he says.

As head of the then Centre for Food Research at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL), Leif Skibsted was among the applicants for the so-called FØTEK grants (The Danish Research and Development Programme for Food Technology 1990-94) – which contained more than half a billion Danish kroner that the government put into play to help renew food science research in Denmark. In December 1990, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science awarded 53 million kroner to the then Centre for Food Research at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL) and 62 million kroner to the then Center for Food Research at DTH (now DTU). A joint DTH/KVL ”Centre for Lactic Acid Bacteria” also received 25 million kroner. In 1991, the original centres that received the FØTEK grants combined to form the Danish Centre for Advanced Food Studies, LMC.

“Many wanted a food science university, like in the Netherlands, but the timing was not right for more universities – quite the contrary – so instead the Danish Centre for Advanced Food Studies was formed as a collaboration between DTH and the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University. A common education would then be developed to replace the bromatology education. The entire manoeuvre led to a number of good years for food science research in Denmark,” explains Leif Skibsted. 

The Danish model

This vitamin injection to food science, which was based on collaboration and co-financing from the food industry and agriculture, was a great success and has since been called “the Danish model”.  The Danish model is the reason the food industry in Denmark today can draw on a large number of highly educated employees with a basic understanding of the food science mechanisms behind the products, which form the foundation for the further research and innovation taking place in the industry today.

The Danish university reform in 2006 distributed food research across various universities, including the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen, where Leif Skibsted is a professor.

“I do not want to return to that time, as there are good aspects about raising funds on your own and making things happen, but there is nevertheless a need for more stable resources for the long-term food science research that the food industry cannot be expected to co-finance. When I teach students, I usually take a count of course participants and when I get to number 6 I say: “You are the one who will go to bed hungry tonight.” Because already today, every sixth person in the world does not get enough to eat and that is simply not acceptable,” says Leif Skibsted.

He believes that the international community must take advantage of all scientific advances - including genetic modification - to ensure a plentiful and stable food supply. He is sceptical of a general conversion to organic farming.

“We can certainly convert Danish agriculture to organic and still feed ourselves as we produce food for three times our population. But it would reduce the yield by about a third and since we already lack food for one billion people, it is not very appropriate in a global perspective. We would then only be able to feed about 10 million people instead of 15, leaving 5 million more to starve,” he says.

Is this the biggest food science challenge we have today?

“Yes, you could say that. The biggest food science challenge is to provide enough food for the world’s population, because in the next 50 years we need to produce as much food as mankind has produced since the hunter-gatherer stage,” says Leif Skibsted.

Another very big challenge is, according to Leif Skibsted, that the international community has major health challenges due to the lack of iron, zinc, vitamin A and calcium.

“We need to understand the chemistry behind the deficiency diseases that the international community experiences and we cannot expect the food industry to finance the basic research needed to solve the food science and health science puzzles on these fronts alone,” he says and continues,

“In the western world, for example, we get a lot of calcium, yet a disease like osteoporosis is an emerging epidemic in our part of the world. Thus, producing more innovative and healthy foods with a higher content of calcium cannot solve the problem. The problem is rather that our bodies are not very good at absorbing calcium and here we need to concentrate our efforts on long-term food science basic research - preferably in collaboration with other research disciplines - in order to figure out what can be done.  We currently have the prerequisites for creating good results - but we lack the stable funding to solve some of the major societal challenges.”

The research that currently occupies Leif Skibsted mostly deals with the mineral availability of calcium, zinc and iron through diet.

“1/3 of the world’s population is suffering from iron deficiency and 1/3 of Danish women of childbearing age do not have enough iron in their body to carry out a pregnancy. The best source of iron is meat, which is a major problem in India, where 1/3 of the population are vegetarians. You can certainly get iron from vegetables, but it is more difficult than from meat as the meat contains some components that ensure that the iron is absorbed in the intestines.  Some of what I am researching right now deals with how you can increase the absorption of iron, zinc and calcium through diet,” he says.

The greatest food science achievement

Leif Skibsted received a cand.pharm. in 1972 and one of the greatest achievements in food science from the 1970s to today is that we have been moving on from ”cook and look” to mechanistic research. 

“If you take a general look at the development in food science since I first became acquainted with it, you can see that we have gone from “cook and look”, where you experimented and observed what happened, to mechanistic food chemistry, where we want to understand the food chemistry at the molecular level,” he says. 

“It is precisely this mechanistic understanding of food science that will provide us with good opportunities to solve the puzzles surrounding the major deficiency diseases and it also the reason why we can tailor food to specific nutritional needs, including, for example, the minerals. Understanding these things is also important in order to be able to produce food that keeps better so that it does not become unhealthy or dangerous,” says Leif Skibsted, who sees two major challenges in regards to shelf life to be solved in the future: 

“There are two types of chemical reactions that make our food bad and unhealthy, chemically speaking. One is oxidation, which antioxidants can help protect against. The other is browning reactions, also called Maillard reactions. In other words, you need to prevent rancidity in foods and avoid foods that have turned brown because they have developed Maillard products, including AGE (Advanced Glycation End Products). There are food researchers who believe that AGE has some of the responsibility for the obesity and diabetes epidemics, because we eat foods that excessively heat treated,” says Leif Skibsted, who is one of them.

Human relations are essential

Leif Skibsted has been the principal supervisor for approx. 40 PhD students in Denmark and co-supervisor of a number of Chinese students at Renmin University of China, where he has been appointed “Overseas Chair Professor” and teaches for three weeks each year. In addition, since 1998, he has supervised a number students in Brazil. This contact with many students has contributed to his great research production and in 2006 he was named one of the most cited food researchers in the world of ISI Web of Knowledge (now Web of Science).

“That I have had so many PhD students has meant that I have been able to write many articles. Actually, one very important aspect of my job is to interact with other people. I am very interested in my subjects, but I have always placed great emphasis on human relationships and teaching. And some of the people I have learned a lot from myself, I still have a connection with,” explains Leif Skibsted, who was in China for the first time at the turn of the millennium.

He was sent by the Ministry of Education to Japan for three weeks as a Danish lecturer at a university where they teach Danish as a language. Here he met a Chinese colleague, Professor J.P. Zhang, who worked in Japan as a postdoc. 

“China called many Chinese back home at that time, because they invested heavily in research themselves. He invited me to China and saw great potential in our collaboration. As a result, I have been visiting China several times a year since the millennium, first as a visiting professor and later as an actual employee of the university,” says Leif Skibsted, who has just had his position as ”Overseas Chair Professor” extended.

At Renmin University of China, he also teaches at an international summer school in a course in Chemistry for Food and Health, and every year he gives 30 lectures on food chemistry and the impact of diet on our health, including fats, proteins and minerals.

Researcher of the world’s food chambers

In 1998, Leif Skibsted met a Brazilian professor at a conference who invited him to Brazil, where he has since been a few times a year in a more informal collaboration, resulting in the project “Bread and Meat for the Future”, a Danish-Brazilian research project that examines three main areas: 

Is it possible to improve public health in South America, where people eat a lot of meat, by feeding the animals mate (reminiscent of tea, but made from holly species). The results show that meat from, for example, cattle and chickens fed with mate does not turn rancid as quickly, as the mate acts as an antioxidant.

“In an article that has just been published, we demonstrate that the tendency for the formation of free oxygen radicals in the meat, which is the first step in oxidation, is reduced when you feed with mate. It is an interesting result, because in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil there are high rates colorectal cancer that is associated with the fact that many there eat as much meat in a single meal as you might eat in an entire week in Denmark,” says Leif Skibsted.

Another part of the project looks at how to avoid using nitrite in the curing process of dried meat and whether you can mimic the maturation process in Parma ham, which is done using Mediterranean salt and no nitrite. At the same time, the Parma ham is stable in colour and does not go rancid. Research has shown that it is possible. 

The third part of the “Bread and Meat for the Future” project examines whether you can replace wheat, which there is a lack of around the world, with flour from the starch tube cassava (which is also called manioc - or the potato of the tropics).      

“Although Brazil is considered to be a larder, the country currently has to import wheat as there is a global shortage. In China, they are trying to bake bread with a mix of wheat and potatoes and in Brazil they are trying to use cassava, which is hard to bake with, because it does not contain gluten and only a little protein. Here we are trying to use enzymes from Novozymes to bake bread with, which clearly improves the bread quality,” explains Leif Skibsted.

In addition to working with research, Leif Skibsted is also a good communicator and in 2007 he joined the magazine Samvirke’s expert panel for consumer question, where he regularly answers questions from readers. 

Enjoys nature

One of Leif Skibsted’s great private interests is botany. Many of his holidays take him to places where exciting plants are found and in the spring he is a regular guest on Öland in Sweden, where he takes orchid hikes.

“I am very happy to dwell in nature and it is good to have a purpose for the outdoor adventures,” says Leif Skibsted, who enjoys his daily surroundings in Klinteby near Faxe Ladeplads, where he lives next to the sea.

He is also interested in cooking and, as a father of three children who are now all around thirty, he has trained that discipline for years and now there are grandchildren as well. Leif Skibsted will celebrate his birthday privately and in a not so far away future travel to Brazil to start a new research project in collaboration with the University of São Paulo.