Dr. Emma Beckett is a researcher in molecular nutrition at the University of Newcastle and a well-known science communicator and food fashionista. She shares food and nutrition science in a way that helps empowering people to make better food and nutrition choices. She has a Ph.D. in Food Science and has authored 30 peer-reviewed academic articles. In this interview, Emma takes us through her journey and work, her mission and passion for personalized nutrition, and why busting nutrition myths and empowering the public to interpret nutrition research is so important.
Emma, you are a lecturer, foods and nutrition scientist, food fashionista, and a strong nutrition communicator. Can you tell us more about your journey so far and how you got here?
I’m very happy with where I have landed, and the journey I’ve been on, but I guess I got here kind of the long way around! I started out studying law before I realized that studying evidence and finding the truth was really what scientists did. I completed a biomedical sciences degree before realizing that nutrition was the science that touched everyone – after all if we are lucky we will all eat every day! So a few post-graduate degrees and a Ph.D. later I was a nutrition scientist. The communication and food frocks I fell into along the way. I love sharing the joy of food and nutrition science, and I noticed how many unqualified people were sharing misinformation, so I thought I’d get out there and start a new conversation. The food fashion I was doing just for fun, then I realized my outfits were a great way to start conversations and get non-scientists interested – now I do an outfit with matching food fact most days on my social media.
Your science communication work focuses on busting nutrition myths and empowering the public to interpret nutrition research. Why are nutrition myths so harmful? What needs to change in the next 5 years?
There’s a lot of bad information out there, which makes it hard for people to make good decisions. I don’t want to tell people what to do, we are all unique, autonomous, and live complicated lives, but I want to put good quality, scientifically sound information out there, because the more space we can fill with good information, the less space there is for the snake-oil sellers! Myths are hard to bust because they are often rooted in a small nuggets of truth, and they are normally selling hope or information that we all want to be true!
Some of Emma's Food-Themed Outfits
You are known as “Ms. Frizzle of Foods and nutrition” - You wear food-themed outfits as a fun and cool way to express your personality, and as a great tool to start conversations about food and nutrition sciences – How did this start?
It wasn’t really a plan! I had a few food dresses and food earrings that I would wear for events and for fun, but then strangers would comment on them, and I’d feel compelled to explain that I was a food and nutrition scientist and I got some really interesting responses from people who just had no idea that food and/or nutrition scientist was even a job. So I started wearing them more often and collecting new ones and it grew. Posting them on social media came out of the #ILookLikeAScientist movement, where non-white male scientists were posting selfies to bust stereotypes, as the collection of dresses and earrings grew I started posting more often, and then it clicked to me that the wellness bloggers and celebrities were using their aesthetics to sell their fad diets, so why shouldn’t I use my aesthetics to share science.
As a researcher, what has been the most exciting research or project of your career so far? And what are you currently working on?
Oh gosh! It’s all exciting, from the smallest and most tedious work to the big and popular stuff. I love the cross-over work most – where we look at not just nutrition but interactions with elements like genetics, like taste or metabolism differences, or environmental exposures like sunlight or microbiomes. I love this stuff because fairness is one of my touchpoints, and by studying interactions we can figure out what works in different circumstances so that everyone can have a good chance at optimal nutrition. I’m also super interested in personal differences in responding to foods because I am an identical twin with a busload (literally) of siblings, so had been thinking about all the things that make us the same or different before I even knew what genetics was. But while we all appreciate our external genetic traits like hair and eye colour, or height, we often forget or take the internal differences for granted!
Personalized nutrition is a trend that will be "on everyone's lips" in the future - what opportunities do you see in your work of molecular nutrition to further promote or support this trend?
The intent of personalized nutrition is never to replace general and population-based recommendations, but it will help us make better recommendations for those who sit at the ends of the standard curves or those who are are a particular risk for diet-related diseases. Already there are people selling tests and products, for specific genes or conditions, but as we learn more we can apply these principles more broadly to reduce the impacts for people who don’t respond like the majority. Molecular nutrition is about measuring the differences on a molecular scale but this goes hand in hand with the more general population-based measures too.
What’s your vision for personalized nutrition by the year 2030?
Right now we make decisions based on the greatest good for the greatest number, but these can have off-target impacts for some. We have programs for supplementation and fortification and recommendations for intakes based on most people, but we don’t think about the few these could harm. There is also a lot of scope for personalized nutrition information to help motivate people who can’t see how the general advice works for them, and to help absolve some guilt for those who follow the general advice but don’t see the same results as others doing the same.
What has been your biggest success so far in your professional career? What is one learning from it that you would like to communicate to all our readers?
When I was a Ph.D. student I applied for a scholarship from the Australian Academy of Science to travel to the National Institutes of Health in the USA for a visiting fellowship. I didn’t expect to get it, but the application process involved writing a proposal with a National Institutes of Health host, and I thought that would be a good experience for me to try. But I ended up getting the scholarship and went to the USA for 3 months to work with the nutritional epidemiology team at the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences. I got to work on a huge project but most of all, the experience taught me to be brave and apply, now I just have a crack at every exciting opportunity and if I get it, yay! And if I don’t I get valuable practice at building my resilience.
What excites you about foods and nutrition and what's your vision for our food and nutrition system by 2030? What role will nutrition experts play?
Feeding people will always be important, and how we feed people as we respond to challenges like growing populations, and aging populations, and climate change will be really important. We want people to understand where their foods come from and how they impact them so that they can use this information to make good decisions on investments of time, energy, and resources on a personal, national and international scale.
Do you have a favorite article or book that every nutrition expert should read?
Although there are lots of great books, I hesitate to recommend anyone individually because no single resource is the font of all nutrition knowledge, and considering the body of knowledge, which is in flux, is more important. I would urge nutrition experts to read up on subconscious bias and fat-phobia to make sure that they are not unintentionally doing harm in trying to “fix” people. For budding food and nutrition scientists, I would say remember food police is not a real job, and there are so, so many different roles in the world for food and nutrition scientists, from product design to policy, to analysis, to communications, and more!