Summer of Science - Dr. Cristina Chuck-Hernandez - Food Engineering

Improving Health through Food Engineering

By Cristina Chuck-Hernández, PhD

For #SummerOfScience, AWIS is highlighting members and partners to show the impact different fields of science have on society – and how these fields are impacted by women.

My name is Cristina Chuck. My profession is food engineering, a multidisciplinary area that leverages chemistry, biochemistry, nutrition, microbiology, and engineering to solve problems associated with the food system. Food science and engineering use scientific principles to overcome storage, processing, packaging, and food distribution challenges. My mission is to use science to make healthier and nutritious foods readily accessible to all, to improve the lives of countless people struggling with food-related diseases.

Food Engineering Then and Now

I was born in Mexico at the end of the 1970s, when the percentage of children in a state of malnutrition (measured as underweight) was 22% in the country’s rural areas. An average Mexican family spent 45% of its monthly income on food, and there was not yet much information about food and health—the objective was simply to consume enough daily calories to have a regular life and to not die trying.

Since then, multiple specialists worldwide have found solutions to public food-health challenges. The study of nutrition, for example — hand in hand with process technology, raw materials management, and implementation of social nutrition programs — has allowed us to understand how macro- and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals influence people’s health, lives, and professional performance. Most people don’t know that only a century ago, in 1921, 75% of infants in New York City were affected by osteomalacia (also known as rickets), a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. As a result, in 1940, the U.S. government mandated the fortification of milk with vitamin D, a similar case to the fortification of flour with niacin to reduce the incidence of pellagra in the same years. Both initiatives were adopted worldwide decades ago, including in Mexico.

Furthermore, improvements in food storage preservation processes and equipment like pasteurizers have made it possible to 1) maintain and store food for more extended periods with efficient refrigeration systems and 2) inactivate pathogenic or deteriorative microorganisms and enzymes that affect the quality of products and reduce their shelf life, increasing the available food.

The processes of extracting and producing ingredients, such as vegetable oil and caloric sweeteners, have been successful in increasing the calories that are readily accessible to families. However, this advancement has also led to dietary changes that are currently considered part of a “Western diet.” The success in processing has changed the historical focus of science around food. Until a few decades ago, food scientists sought to prevent nutritional deficiencies and to combat hunger by providing food for all. The current approach in most of the world is to prevent (and even to control) chronic diseases that are linked to diet. Type 2 diabetes (DB2), cancer, and cardiovascular problems are the leading causes of death worldwide. In Mexico, 10% of the population has DB2, 70% of adults are overweight or obese, and 30% of adults fall into the obesity range (with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater). Furthermore, it is expected that by 2030, 40% of Mexican adults will reach this BMI level.

In my work I study obesity in Mexico and Latin America at Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Institute for Obesity Research, a strategic initiative launched in 2021 that takes a multidisciplinary approach to solving this complex problem. The institute is integrated into five research units: 1) experimental medicine and advanced therapies; 2) politics and public entrepreneurship; 3) devices and bioprocesses; 4) integrative biology; and 5) healthy foods, a unit in which I collaborate directly and whose objective is to develop and validate foods for the prevention and treatment of obesity and other comorbidities associated with metabolic syndrome. Our work focuses on nutrigenomics, personalized nutrition, and the development of ingredients to make healthy and feasible options available to society. Food science merges diverse disciplinary areas and enables communication that addresses cultural, traditional, and social aspects associated with food selection and consumption.

Women in Food Engineering

Besides its impact on health and economics, food engineering is also an interesting discipline from a gender perspective. At Tecnológico de Monterrey, 75% of food engineering students are women. In the United States, 68.5% of the 1,815 food science degrees awarded in 2020 went to women. Food engineering is an academic program dominated by women in other countries as well, such as in Bolivia and South Africa.

Unfortunately, in a study we performed in Mexico last year, students reported gender bias despite the high level of women’s participation. Women undergraduates tended to experience implicit discrimination from their peers who were men, despite outperforming them in science courses. In our report, we also included the concept of self-efficacy as “the confidence a person has in their ability to achieve something desired.” We found it is an important trait that we need to teach our students in order to gain confidence in their abilities.

We found, in addition, that food industry engineering graduates who went on to become entrepreneurs were primarily men. This might be due to the lack of investment in women-founded companies and to the masculinized context of STEM fields, at least in Latin American countries, and specifically in Mexico.

Looking to the Future

Focusing my work these days on the country of my origin, I am witnessing many problems in Mexico associated with food production and processing, despite their not being the same as 45 years ago. We also have many challenges to overcome associated with gender inclusion in our professional lives. However, if we use our knowledge and time, surely we will be able to improve the health conditions of the majority, bringing well-being to the disadvantaged.

In the words of English novelist Mary Ann Evans (written under her pen name, George Eliot), “What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?”

Cristina Chuck-Hernández, PhD is a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey and a founding member of the Research Center for Protein Development, an initiative oriented to conceive methods for vegetable protein extraction and modification. Her research areas include protein extraction and protein modification for food ingredients creation. Dr. Chuck-Hernández is a member of the National Research System and was awarded “Mujer TEC 2015” in recognition of her mentorship of female students. She has been an AWIS member since 2021.