Food has the power to change mindsets, influence lifestyle choices and promote a healthy environment.
Suresh Chander, our next pathbreaker, Food Scientist at Arboreal, develops new range of foods that offer low calorific natural alternatives to traditional sugar based foods.
Suresh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to Food Product Development to create innovative food products that not only mimic sugar in terms of desired properties but also address the lifestyle challenges that traditional sugar poses in terms of health.
A great career if you want to take on the challenges of blending taste (art) with nutrition (science) to influence the next generation!
Tell us about your background?
I was born and brought up in Chennai. I mostly grew up in the kitchen because my mother and my aunt were involved in catering business since 1999. After my 10th grade, I started assisting them in their work. I used to take the cooked food to companies, make arrangements in the lunch hall and collect the money from our customers. We used to sell atleast 200 meals per day. Most of our customers appreciated the quality and taste of our food. Yet there were some complaints as well. This made me curious about the dynamics involved in the food business and expectations of the customers.
During my school days, subjects like science and social sciences appealed to me a lot and I was curious to go deeper into the subject. But often, questions like “Why am I even learning these concepts? When and Where I will be applying these principles? Is it a worthwhile exercise to pursue the subject of science further?”, used to bother me and confuse me. Beyond classroom, i used to spend time writing articles for school / college magazines and scripts for drama staged during cultural programs. Throughout school, I was very unsure about my future career. All I knew was that I was good in biology and wanted to pursue it further, but had no clue as to how i would be able to build a successful career. At home, my parents fostered an environment where I had complete liberty to pursue my studies based on my choice. They rendered all the support and help I needed, but i also realized that pursuing a career of your choice was a responsibility fraught with risks and one had to tread very cautiously after weighing all the pros and cons. But the free atmosphere in my home encouraged me to take the risk.
What did you do for graduation/ post graduation?
My interest in biology was the key factor which goaded me to pursue my Bachelors of Technology in Biotechnology from Anna University. I understood that though core subjects like microbiology, chemical engineering and genetic engineering are separate and comprehensive by themselves, they are still inter-related. I came to know that no discipline in science could exist as a separate entity but only as a combination of different disciplines with significant overlap. I identified that my interests were in inter-disciplinary science subjects instead of one single subject. In course of time, I realized that food science, which had elements of biology, food and engineering was one such subject which I had been looking for all these years. So, I decided to go for a master’s degree in Food Science and ended up in University of Helsinki (UH), Finland.
The food science curriculum at UH was very flexible and interdisciplinary. This is one major reason I chose to pursue MS in food science at UH. There are two tracks, food bioprocessing and food safety. In the early stage of the masters one has to choose one track as their major. Food bioprocessing is focused on management of the processing chain of domestic food raw materials. Food safety deals with chemical and microbial safety of food, including risk assessment and management. Few subjects are common and other subjects remain track specific. However, students are encouraged to learn any number of courses in any department according to their choice. This motivated me to think non-linearly. I majored in food bioprocessing and I was awarded a full tuition waiver. University admission committee encourages passionate and motivated students. Faculty members are open and they also encourage students to execute our own ideas right from small projects. I worked as researcher that helped me to overcome my other expenses in Helsinki. The unique part is this environment helps you to learn from your failures. So naturally, I was comfortable and plunged into testing the waters. It helped me complete my master’s thesis on Idli batter. In Europe, I was the first-person to research on Idli, as my mentor Prof. Per Saris used to point this out. It is a bit hard to find such an environment.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Though I was very sure about my interest, I was very unsure about how to make a career out of it. On 9th Sept 2011, Mr. Sampsa Haarasilta, Research Director of Fazer introduced Food Product Development through his guest lecture. This was the first time I came across the term food product development (FPD) and it generated considerable interest in me. Fortunately, this happened at an early stage of my masters at UH. I was almost convinced that I will be pursuing a career in FPD, as my interests matched very well with this discipline. Still I took my own time considering other areas of the food industry. Later I zeroed in on FPD. From this point onwards, all my training programmes, courses of study and master’s thesis were all focused on FPD and helped me pursue FPD as a full-time career.
The education system and my friends at UH, Helsinki encouraged me to pursue my interests further. Their support helped me explore, experiment, correct myself, improve and learn. On the other hand, I initially struggled adapting myself to the Finnish education system. It is more practical, and encourages students to be self-reliant. In stark contrast, the Indian education system relies on spoon-feeding, guiding and monitoring throughout schooling and bachelors. Any independent work by students invited scorn and displeasure from teachers. At Helsinki, under the new educational system, which encouraged students to be independent and innovative, I underwent a rapid transitional phase. After initial difficulties, I managed to fit into the new system and also learned to move along with matching speed. On completion of my course, I emerged as a fully confident, independent and enterprising person ready to take a plunge into an exciting career in food research and product development.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I was always attracted to technology and its impact on society. I was very curious to work on such projects. From my faculty members I heard about a project on nutritional sciences, funded by Nokia. This project focused on developing a mobile application for rural health care workers for monitoring their diet in Kenya. I was part of the information sciences team, where I used to collect data, analyze and generate reports. These reports were used by the application development team. Here I had a chance to work with experienced professors and computer professionals. This project had so many challenges, we had to implement in Kenya with less resources. Each and every loophole that unfolded was addressed and successfully implemented. This project was a super hit. By 2018, we were able improve the diet status of many communities in Africa. Data sciences played a vital role for the success of this project and it was a real-time learning for me
My master’s thesis helped me in kickstarting a career path in FPD. Europe is so advanced in the food industry. I found that Pizza and Chinese foods had upgraded and had made inroads even into rural areas of Europe. I was unhappy about the fact that no Indian product was available at this scale. So, for my thesis work, I decided to choose a system of biofortifying Idli batter through fermentation. Prof. Per Saris guided and mentored me in planning and completing my work. This work helped me to land a job as process developer at Fazer R&D
Then I started to look out for R&D jobs in India. Job search was really difficult, as I had no connections in the Food industry and there were lesser openings in 2014. I had to start from scratch. After a brief search, I got a job in Quantum Confectionery as product developer where I learned the basics of the trade. But my stint in R&D, Cavinkare, Chennai proved to be rewarding, enriching and helped me in honing my skills. There, I had wide exposure to handling spices, confectionery and snacks. Each category has its own domain challenge. Fortunately, my organization reposed confidence and trust on my work and I was able to develop and launch consumer winning products in different categories. My biggest lesson in the job search exercise and during my work is that if one can develop and showcase their skills, the industry is always ready to grab you and pay for it. This may take little time, but finally you will be rewarded. Of course, the skill development period is very crucial and it is our first investment in our career.
How did you get your first break?
I feel identifying our prime interests and passion are very important. Once you do this, your journey finds a purpose, gets easier and flavorful. As far as I am concerned, when I realized that food research and product development were my passion, I got my first break.
What were the challenges in this field? How did you address them?
According to me, Food product development involves research, execution and offering economical solutions. I think these three elements pose a definite challenge which needs to be well understood and properly handled, else it will land you in a dark zone. Patience, extensive reading, recording, constantly updating my knowledge and clarifying doubts from experienced people has helped me overcome these hurdles.
Where do you work now and what is your role?
I head the Research and Applications team at Arboreal. We manufacture stevia (natural sweetener) and offer low calorie solutions to our clientele.
My role involves development of processes, products and solutions with low or no sugar products for our consumers. Replacing/reducing sugar is a challenging task specifically in categories like bakery, confectionery, beverages and desserts as it contains more percentage of sugar. Human tongue is a very sensitive organ and it takes less than a second for a consumer to determine whether a product is tasty or not. So, one needs molecular understanding from ingredients to manufacturing to consumer acceptance. Sugar reduction is a multi-faceted global problem. To address this problem, care should be taken to balance both cost and taste. While cost factor should be nominal, there should be no compromise in taste and only then it will be patronized by the consumers and industry.
Our solutions mimic the properties of sugar. We use a range of natural ingredients like fibers, starch or hydrocolloids to match the properties. But it is not easy to replace the taste of sugar because beyond sweetness, sucrose offers many other properties like bulking, caramelization, mouth feel, viscosity etc. So it is impossible to develop one universal solution for different categories of products. Further, as we are handling novel ingredients, there is less knowledge base available. Deeper understanding is essential to make our solution scalable and likable.
When we test our products with consumers, we get different forms of feedback – it may be positive or negative. Failures are the best part of new product development; it gives an opportunity to refine your solution and gives a deeper working knowledge about the food that is going to be held in hands of customers and tasted orally.
Reading, observation, testing and recording are the fundamental skills required for my job. Other skills like project management, new thought generation becomes value addition to this role.
How does your work benefit the society?
Offering healthy yet tasty food is an art turned to science. This is what I do. Obesity and diabetes are global problems and India tops the list. Our natural ingredients and low-calorie solutions will help to control/prevent obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-oriented diseases.
Our nation spends millions to treat diabetes and obesity. Our solutions will help to stabilize the lifestyle and indirectly contribute to the economy too.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
For a product developer, launching a product is one proud moment. Launching my first product in India was one memorable event. I treat every product as my first. It gives lots of excitement and zeal to work.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Read books, focus and enjoy science it will eventually lead you. Don’t worry if you could not identify your passion or subject of interest. Take opportunities on your way, it helps you to define or refine your plans.
I enjoy being a science communicator as a result I started an Instagram channel – Food on details.
Through short videos we explain complicated aspects of food technology in a straightforward and simpler manner. Further, I conduct workshops for students through online and offline channels addressing the problems students face while transitioning from academia to industry. In the coming days, I will be giving more time on this to share food science knowledge through this channel and other mediums. Finally, my love for food product development is unending and the journey continues.
One could also reach me at email@example.com for any professional assistance. I will be happy to guide you.