People sometimes are quick to believe common myths like ‘the dangers of decaffeinated coffee’ and ‘health risks of consuming cow’s milk.’ We have to stop being afraid of science and technology, and understand that it is impossible to satisfy the needs of the human race without processed foods.” An interview with Associate Professor Uri Lesmes.
In 2010, after a position as a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Associate Professor Uri Lesmes returned to the Technion’s Faculty of Biotechnology & Food Engineering, back to the place where he had received all of his first three degrees. “I returned to Israel and to the Technion out of a sense of Zionism and because I missed my family. I also wanted to become a part of an excellent academic institution with first class infrastructure, faculty and students.”
Even in comparison with the US?
Certainly. The students make up the “executive branch” of scientific research, and the Technion has great students – this isn’t just a myth. In general, the Technion is considered world class in global terms, and it isn’t ranked highly for naught. The Technion administration and faculty heads are very aware of the fact that the secret to success lies in the human capital, and this is the reason they invest in it significant resources.
At what differences can you point to between the academic cultures that you observed?
The American view of academic success is the story an individual, which is one that in my mind, leads to obstacles in the creation of partnerships. This way of thinking sours the benefits brought on by joint efforts and cross-fertilization, which are the essential ingredients for the success of multi-disciplinary studies. Fortunately, the Israeli academic culture in general, and at the Technion in particular, is much more supportive of collaboration and cooperation.
And what about within the Faculty?
Within the Faculty, there is an excellent corporate culture with ever tightening industry ties, and in recent years there has been a significant hiring of new young faculty – a sort of a ‘changing of the guard’ with retiring professors being replaced by a younger generation of professors. All of these elements have brought new flavors and innovative practices to the level of studies and professional training increasing graduate appeal to the food and biotechnology companies.
Food companies are not very popular in Israel. In Israel, and the world in general, there is an unfair bias against these companies, and in many cases they are the “immediate suspects.” The common false assumption is that they are greedy, unscrupulous, and purposely deceptive (to the public) when it works in their favor. This generalization is false and often forgotten in public debates. The fact is that these commercial enterprises are supposed to earn well, and if they do not make money they will not continue to produce food and provide us with the western standards of living we have become accustomed to.
They should make money, but why so much?
Modern food processing has become very challenging, complex and expensive. Food companies are required to satisfy the needs of the consumer for safe and high quality products, while satisfying the ever-increasing stringent demands of the authorities and the consumers. At a time where the raw materials constantly vary, companies must produce fixed and unchanging products that meet consumers’ demand. This is all very complex and expensive, which is reflected in salaries that are not especially high.
So because of the salaries, you are not there (in industry)?
No. The salary in the private sector is still much better than that offered in academia, but this is not the only advantage industry has – there is something magical in the intimate work in development and production, in facing challenges on the job and in producing nutritious products that we all consume. As a scientist I miss out on all this, but my decision to be in academia, and at the Technion in particular, sprung forth from a decision to focus on scientific work, to be a scientist.
Please clarify what you mean by ‘to be a scientist’?
In other words, to be ready to step out of my ‘comfort zone’ to face areas that are still dark and unknown with a goal to shed light on them. Every day brings forth new challenges, a new story, and you must always be daring enough to try things that no one has done before you.
And setting yourself up for failure?
Yes and no. It is obvious that many scientific hypotheses are unsuccessful, but it must be understood that failing to prove a hypothesis is not necessarily a scientific failure. This is because these ‘failures’ also advance science, since it almost always reveals something new or at the very least, opens new scientific directions. Understanding failure is often a deep understanding of knowledge that hadn’t previously existed.
And when a full project turns into a flop?
So it’s an awesome flop! If we become upset over it, it’s a sign that we expect nature to act according to our instructions, and this is an unrealistic expectation. Nature doesn’t ask us how to act, so when it refutes our assumptions, we should try to learn something from it, uncover something new, rather than despair. Each day teaches us something new and this is why scientific research is a great pleasure for me, which also permeates to my personal and family life. The scientific approach is very similar to my philosophy – to own up to things instead of complaining, to do out of a realization that not everything will always work out.”
Associate Professor Uri Lesmes was born in Colombia, and when he was five years old he made an Aliyah to Israel with his family. He grew up in Nazareth Illit. When he graduated from high school he contemplated joining the Academic Atuda service (allowing the completion of an academic degree prior to army service) but at the end he decided to join the army straight away, and served in a combat unit – ‘to contribute significantly.’ Only after he was discharged, in the year 2000, he began his academic studies. As soon as he completed his undergraduate degree in 2004, he started his master’s degree, and continued until awarded his PhD in a direct track under the guidance of Professor Eyal Shimoni. During his graduate studies he developed a method for ‘molecular wrapping’ (nano-encapsulation) of Omega-3 in starch, a method that has led to the filing of a patent application.
Why is it a good thing?
Starch is a natural substance that the body gladly accepts, and with the method we developed, we are actually using it as a Trojan Horse to place Omega-3 into the body and protect this sensitive material until it is released during digestion; it doesn’t travel around the body but rather gets released directly in the small intestine – the ‘package’ breaks down in a natural and controlled manner. This is where the contents are released and become available exactly at the right place. The subsequent research, continued from my dissertation work, proved that this method significantly increases the bioavailability of Omega-3 as well as nutraceutical materials (materials containing extra-nutritional or even medical effects).
How do you test these things?
There is of course tested in experimental models and clinical trials, but between these two extremes are many intermediating ‘stations’ where testing is performed, such as at the unique laboratory I established here when I became a faculty member. In this lab we can perform recreate parts of the gastrointestinal tract – using an artificial model mimicking the digestive process.
These rely on different bio-reactors, simulating the stomach, the small intestine and colon, and help us understand the digestive fate of food and orally consumed formulations, and design appropriate products to suit consumer needs.
Why is this simulation so important?
Because food is complex and challenging. It may be possible, for example, to combine two healthy and safe ingredients that together may have deleterious effects to the consumer. This is why we must consider food in its entirety, as too the digestive process. We have to understand what happens to food ingredients before and during digestion, and the ‘artificial stomach,’ developed by doctoral student Carmit Shani-Levy, is a very significant step in this direction. Carmit also performs validation of the system by comparing the outputs of the simulated digestion with samples of ingredients that were processed by human digestive enzymes. Doctoral student Alice Moscovici found a very high correlation, sometimes reaching 100%, between the outputs of breakdown products of a milk protein in our artificial system and that received from babies or adult volunteers.
Can you distinguish between different age groups?
Certainly. Our alimentary canal undergoes significant changes throughout our lifetime, and the artificial systems in our laboratory are capable of mirroring the differences in the digestive processes among different age groups.
Is it hard to be a food engineer?
It’s not simple. Despite the portrayal of our industry, this is a field that is transforming into something very high-techi, and its way to realization is a long and arduous route in comparison with its corresponding high-technology. For example, if the creation of ‘facebook’ required a garage and a computer, in the field of food and biotechnology you will need experience, proof, technical knowledge, a substantial capital investment, and patience.
Where is this field headed towards?
One of the areas it is moving towards is ‘customized or tailored food’ – very much like personalized medicine. We now know that the digestive tract works differently at different ages, and is also affected by variables such as genetics and gender (women, for example, need to consume fewer calories than men). This is why there is no such thing as a ‘shelf menu’ that suits everyone, and at optimal conditions, each person will be able to get the right nutrition customized to his/her own personal needs at their particular stage in life. There is still a long way to go and many challenges have to be tackeld, but this is the direction.
So the next decade will not be dull for you.
To feel bored will be virtually impossible. This is a very complex field, with many limitations and constraints; for example, the growing demand for use of only natural ingredients with minimal processing. This is also a very dynamic field which is constantly changing, and one of the major changes in the past two decades is the emphasis on health. Food manufacturers now increasingly consider the health of the consumer as part of their decision making, and our job is to help them fabricate healthier products that provide a combination of health, taste and reasonable pricing. This change is evident in the motto accompanying aid efforts to Africa: if in the eighties the motto was ‘People have a right to food,’ today it is ‘People have the right to the right food.’
So in this trend, what is the role of the food engineer?
Food is not a mathematical equation, and therefore requires a lot of creativity, engineering and scientific work. Generally, it requires a balance between two goals: preserving the nutritional value of foods, and destroying (the maximum amount) of ‘bad’ or harmful bacteria and hazardous compounds. This challenge arises in the simplest processes like in cooking eggs – how long to fry an egg so that harmful bacteria will die, while not ‘killing’ the proteins carrying nutritional value or forming hazardous compounds. In the laboratory we deal with more complex processes connected with optimal food processing.
Today food processing is almost a derogatory term.
There is an unfortunate combination of trends and disinformation. One must understand that part of the current trends, such as for example the ‘raw food’ movement, is not a realistic option in a global context. You cannot feed the entire world population with raw food nor can you ignore the fact the man has been evolving to consume cooked food. Moreover, in many cases, cooking and/or processing improves the nutritional effectiveness of food. Take for example lycopene – a substance that is found in tomato peel that helps in the prevention of heart and vascular diseases. Lycopene is a crystalline material that is difficult to breakdown in its natural state, but when cooked in olive oil, these crystals melt and dissolve and thereby become more readily available to the body. This is why pizza sauce is better for you, in this respect, than raw tomatoes.
Are our misconceptions tied to a fear about science?
We are afraid from things we don’t know or understand, and this must change. If it wasn’t for technology, mankind would not have been able to handle population growth. If 150 years ago almost half of the world’s population was employed in agriculture and food production and distribution networks, today only ~7% of the population work in agriculture while the rest are free to follow other pursuits, which are not less important. People like Bill Gates can pursue science and technology because they can purchase their food at the supermarket. And despite this, people are still fearful of science and progress, and are quick to believe common myths like ‘the dangers of decaffeinated coffee’ and ‘health risks in consuming cow’s milk.’
Yes. The processing of decaffeinated coffee at one time made use of organic solvents such as hexane, which is now recognized as hazardous; but today coffee is produced using other processes – for example, extraction at high pressures using water – a simple and safe process. Although cow’s milk is not suitable for the entire population, for most of us it is an excellent source of many healthy substances, and I am not aware of any evidence that proves it is harmful to healthy people. The problem is that people let themselves be swept away by trends without the tools with which to distinguish between the truth and false allegations.
They believe they have the tools (to help them distinguish between the truth and false statements).
They have access to the Internet, which is an infinite reservoir of information where anyone can publish their claims and arguments, and promote themselves in search engines. This is where we come in, the scientists, and one of our tasks is to provide the public with reliable and solidly based information. This is also part of what I volunteer to do through “ResearchGate” foundation and “Bashaar”, which work towards promoting science education within the community and within high school students in Israel. Our challenge is to make science accessible to the public, and my specific challenge as a food engineer is to show that food is an engineering and scientific challenge, and that the commercial production of food is actually a necessity in the modern world.
Maybe we should continue our discussion at McDonalds?
I don’t rule out McDonald’s. What is important is to try to keep consumption reasonable and maintain a balanced diet and lifestyle. Food engineering may provide new solutions, which will constitute a way in dealing with our problematic lifestyle and the imbalances we place in our lives. We eat too much, are active too little, and don’t expose ourselves enough to sunlight. All this must change – but that’s not my field.
In the photo (from right to left): Associate Professor Uri Lesmes.