Understanding the Effects of Food Processing

New food science professor Michael Rogers strives to make food healthier

Guelph food science professor Michael Rogers.

According food science professor Michael Rogers, for the first time in human history more of us will die of food-related diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension than diseases caused by viruses and bacteria.

“And that’s globally, not just in North America,” he adds. “We are eating so differently from the way we have evolved to eat.”

Concern about these issues has influenced Rogers’ interest in food science. After earning his PhD at U of G, he worked at the University of Saskatchewan and then in food science at Rutgers University. He was also director of the Gastrointestinal Physiology Center at the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health. Earlier this year he returned to Guelph, and will continue his research on making food healthier.

“We evolved to eat raw, fresh produce,” he says. “But we have moved a long way from that. And some processing is necessary and positive — there’s not much fresh produce in Guelph in the winter, so we freeze and preserve food so we can eat year round. What we need to understand what are the effects of processing, so we can make good decisions about what we eat.”

His focus currently is on “all things fat-related.” In particular, he is interested in ways to solidify unsaturated oils to replace margarine and butter in highly processed foods, such as pastries. In the process, he hopes to make the fat healthier. As he explains: “Certain phytosterols can structure oils and have biological properties that can reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.”

Rogers says research in food processing is challenging because the technology often gets ahead of the science. “For example, nanoparticles occur naturally in foods, but we are also adding them in processing, such as silver nanoparticles added to kill bacteria. But if they make it into the person’s gut, will they also kill bacteria there and alter the gut flora? We don’t know. We don’t know if it gets into the intestines or not, or what it does if it is there.”

For Rogers, this challenge only makes his work more exciting.

He’s also happy his family, which includes two sons ages two and four, is back in Canada. In addition to being a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan, he feels strongly about the excellent teaching and research at U of G.

“I believe the quality of education here rivals the top universities abroad,” he says. “That is why I left Rutgers, which just received an international ranking of the 33rd best university. I was proud to be part of that, but I am excited to bring what I learned there to Guelph, and do everything I can to promote our brand.”