You are currently a researcher at Chung Shan Medical University Hospital, where you have already conducted several clinical experiments. Can you tell us a little about your recent projects?
We are a group of ten researchers with a primary focus on developing novel nutraceuticals and functional food (using food technology) and their health benefits. Our group especially focuses on clinical trials (Phase I and II) using numerous novel nutraceuticals and functional food against various conditions associated with metabolic syndrome including obesity, diabetic mellitus (DM), cardiovascular disorders (CVD) and several types of cancer.
Several epidemiological studies also show that CVD alone claims more lives than any other disease globally (developed and developing countries). Even in Russia the CVD (ischemic heart disease) is one of the major causes of death. Hence, we focus above all on CVD, obesity and DM using functional foods to prevent and improve health status.
In addition, we attend numerous international conferences to keep track of all the current trends in this area. Moreover, we have many collaborative research groups, who also become our educational partners. This allows us to exchange our knowledge and ideas in order to run successful projects.
How long have you been collaborating with ITMO University and how did you get the opportunity to give a course in St Petersburg?
One of the benefits of international conferences is that you get to meet scientists from different universities. I met ITMO University professors at a conference and after a brief conversation it became clear that we have several programs that could serve as a framework for educational exchange and collaboration. This is how I got enrolled in this visiting lectureship to give a short course. We have not yet collaborated on a research project, but during my visit we discussed our common research interests, which will pave a path for future collaboration.
The main purpose of my visit is to teach students as well as to look for potential collaboration. During my course, I also highlighted a few topics related to functional food development (using food technology). Moreover, I saw that many Russian students are also interested in the development of novel functional foods. I think, in the future, they can visit our university and some of our students can also visit ITMO for an exchange program.
You often give lectures for students from India and Taiwan. Did you notice any differences between the way they approach their studies and the way you’ve seen Russian students do it?
Yes, I do love teaching and educating people. Knowledge is like fire one must share with others, otherwise this fire will be put out inside you and will not help others.
I have a great deal of experience in teaching students in different countries. I have only spent a week here, but I’ve noticed a couple of characteristic behavior traits of Russian students. For example, some of them are too shy to ask a question. Maybe that is due to the language barrier. One other explanation might be that I was a new lecturer and they needed some time to get used to me.
I don’t know what is the standard way of academic teaching in Russia, but my class was interactive with students participating in the discussion, which strengthens the connection between students and the lecturer. I also ask many basic questions to cross-check the overall understanding of the topic. Yes, this is my way of teaching, as these are the easiest way to break the ice in the room.
One of the parts of your course covers food innovations. What are the key aspects that you talk about?
Nowadays there are many directions and approaches in this field, but I focus more on food security and food safety as well as the decrease in food supplies. It a vital problem that is now monitored in Europe and Asia. I have accumulated knowledge and experience in these areas and I have shared a few key points with my students.
Most of us take food and water for granted without realizing their importance. One day, however, the food source will be depleted and all of us will have to fight for food and water as we do for oil now. Hence, I educate my students to develop a long term solution for this by using food technology which lowers our usage of food sources and enables us to control water, food and energy waste.
According to various sources, the estimated global population by mid-century will reach over 9 billion people with the demand rising accordingly. The media nowadays are flooded with numerous concepts for “food of the future”. A number of companies have already started trying to establish the production of “meatless meat”. One other alternative is food made of insects, like grasshoppers, for example. How viable are those forecasts?
Just like you said, the many proteins from meat will be substituted with protein products obtained from insects. As of now, only a few people are ready for this change, but the majority, of course, cannot accept that. Even I would wince if you asked me about eating grasshoppers. It is an understandable reaction. But there are several stages of development and this is only the beginning.
On the other hand, we can use them to make a powder, a protein premix formula. And you wouldn’t even notice any change in taste while eating such a premix with natural flavoring agents like vanillin or chocolate. Then it will get popular with the media playing a role in educating the average person on the benefits of alternative protein sources which include but are not limited to less space usage, less source depletion, and lower pollution levels. Similar scenario applies for artificial meat.
I’ll say it one more time: it’s only the beginning of the major change that will be brought by food technology and innovation. In the future, we will have high-quality food produced with lower energy usage.
But, as you’ve pointed out, many people are rather conservative and take any novelty apprehensively. For instance, as you know, GMOs are banned in Russia. How can we help them adjust to these drastic changes?
Obviously, it’s hard to imagine everyone accepting them at once. Stereotypes are usually quite strong. We have to explain to the conservatives that the changes are necessary, present the benefits they would get, and demonstrate that this will not do them any harm. It goes without saying that every step has to have solid proof.
Hence, I strongly believe that the media will play an important part as they can reach a wide audience. Scientific studies usually are meant for the academia. That is why scientists have to collaborate with the media to convey scientific discoveries in a way that is easy to understand. The same way I shared my ideas with ITMO.NEWS to give students an overview of my course must be used by the media to present the current research to the general public.
You have also mentioned food safety. According to the UN report from a couple of years ago, one-third of the world’s food annually goes to waste. The recent years have seen a growing popularity of social organizations that try to avoid this problem. I am talking about food-sharing. What do you think about this initiative? Is it safe?
I cannot say whether it is 100% good or bad. It depends on a lot of factors. Clearly, you have to be sure of the quality of the food you are sharing, you have to know the ingredients. The efficiency of this initiative is also determined by the social organization in charge and its priorities.
Continuing with the topic of food security and food safety, there is a question as to who is responsible for this? Is it the government or the manufacturer?
I think that, first of all, each of us is responsible for what he or she eats every day. I make my own meals, I choose the ingredients and decide whether they are of good quality. Let’s say, for example, I buy milk every day and I have to check the ingredients to see there is nothing I am allergic to. It is important because some people have problems caused by allergic reactions (in my example it can be lactose intolerance). And, obviously, such people have to make sure that what they buy will bring them no harm. Based on that the manufacturers have to mark their products accordingly.
If you are not taking care of yourself, then who will?
Secondly, the government plays an important role in this process. The government must secure the policy for certification to make sure that all the manufacturers are certified and provide good quality of their food. For example, when we buy bread we have to be sure that the bakery or the manufacturer has proper certification. Government officials should also pay regular visits to food production sites to check the quality of their products. In addition, food safety awareness program must be conducted to educate the citizens.
I would also like to underline the food waste and the way it is connected to food safety and security. I consider food wasting a crime. For instance, when we go to an unlimited buffet restaurants, we typically fill out our plates (due to our mentality), but we can only eat some 10-20% of this food. Everything that’s left is wasted. That is why we educate people to try a small portion of the dish first and only take more if they enjoy the taste.
In addition, some restaurants can lower food wastage by giving a gift or a special discounts to those customers who finish their dishes. This is how food waste is linked to food safety and security. Food wastage results in unequal food distribution and food sources depletion. This in its turn causes the use of artificial additives and low-quality ingredients. Consequently, this raises a big issue for food security and safety.
On the other hand, it is a good idea for the government to create the mechanisms that would distribute excess food from cafes and restaurants among those in need. This would help with reducing food waste and lower the levels of pollution.
Speaking about functional food, this market is rapidly growing nowadays. Will this trend continue in the coming years?
I think it has a bright future. Functional food is very popular in South and East Asia and Europe. It’s not like that in Russia, but this market tends to grow globally. People become health-conscious as it is easy today to access information and keep track of your health. Thus, functional food usage will only be increasing day by day.
The main advantage of nutraceuticals and functional foods is that they are based on natural products. Hence, they are devoid of side or adverse effects but they are just a supplement and cannot be used for treating various diseases. However, it can be prescribed with other standard drugs to improve general health. Also, functional food and nutraceuticals need longer time to produce noticeable effect, but they ensure sustained health benefits compared with conventional Western medicine (prescription drugs).
It is better to prevent the disease altogether than to find a cure once you are already ill.
Translated by Catherine Zavodova