Food Brands are shifting their emphasis from just taste, to taste as well as nutrition/ nourishment to nudge the society towards healthier food products and a healthier lifestyle.

Sonika Sharma, our next pathbreaker, Market Nutritionist at Nestle, supports brands/teams across the portfolio by suggesting ways to make food products more nutritious.

Sonika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the immense satisfaction of being responsible for the nutritional attributes of food with the end goal of promoting the launch of tasty but health forward products.

For students, you have a great opportunity to not only work with your favourite brands but also fortify them with healthy ingredients to make a positive difference to society !

Sonika, where do you come from? Can you take us through your growing up years?

I was born and raised in various states across Gujarat, Delhi, Uttarakhand, and Assam. I had taken science in school and did well in the subject. My father is an IIT alumnus and works in ONGC which made many people assume that I would eventually become an engineer. However, I was very sure since school that I wasn’t interested in that path. Right after 12th, I dabbled between pursuing a Law or an English degree, but unfortunately was never sure since nothing felt right. That was before I stumbled upon the B.Sc. Home science course at Lady Irwin College. I quite liked the way the course was designed to give students time to choose the specialization (among the 5 specializations provided in this course – food and nutrition; human development and childhood studies; mass communication; resource management; fabric and apparel science) they would like to pursue. The 3 years I spent doing this course gave me ample time to decide what I really wanted to take up as a career later.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Sc in Home science with a specialization in Food and Nutrition. After realizing I enjoyed the technical and scientific aspects of the food we eat daily, I decided to pursue M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition. In my masters, I specialized in Public Health Nutrition. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual course?

I chose B.Sc. in Home science particularly because it gives students 1 year to study the 5 specializations in brief and then recognize their inclination towards specific areas. This way, you don’t feel you are missing out on an opportunity because you get to try a little bit of everything in the first year. Then the next 2 years are in depth study of the specialization you choose. 

How did you get to where you are today? Tell us about your career path

Once I knew I was interested in Food and Nutrition, particularly public health nutrition, I tried to know more about the opportunities by talking to seniors and professors. I did an internship with Nutrition Foundation of India, where I further explored my love for public health nutrition. There I helped with field work and collected data on maternal nutrition factors in Delhi slums, while also giving nutrition counselling. I also helped with data input and analysis. Overall, my love for public health nutrition as a subject grew.

After my final M.Sc. exam, I went for a 6-week internship via AIESEC which is a student run body facilitating inter country internship opportunities. I went to Mauritius and worked with an NGO (Elles C Nous) for vulnerable kids. I helped in delivering a nutritious and tasty afternoon snack for children post-school, along with taking care of day to day functioning of the NGO including things like planning events, taking tuition classes for 1st grade kids, finding creative ways to beautify the classrooms to stimulate better learning for the children, etc. This experience gave me an insight into the overall functioning, collaborative nature, day-to-day activities, and impact of the NGO. It was a very memorable 6 weeks. 

But my career took a turn right after completing my masters. As soon as I graduated, all thanks to my college lecturer, I got an opportunity to work with Marico Ltd as a Nutrition Officer. I worked there for a year and a half and got introduced to the world of being a market nutritionist. This was something I never prepared myself to do. I always thought I would be working with an NGO in food policy and here I was, suddenly thrown into the corporate world. I was handling nutrition claims, new product development, nutrition communication, in-house trials, novel food ingredients and also influencing activities to promote the science behind Oats (the most famous Marico product- Masala Oats). 

After 1.5 yrs in Marico, when I got an opportunity to work with Nestle in the capacity of a consultant, as a market nutritionist, I took it. At Nestle, I have the same profile as I had in Marico, but with a more diverse portfolio to look after. Brand categories I work with include confectionery (KitKat, Polo, Munch, BarOne); Foods (Maggi Noodles, Pasta, Seasonings, Poha, Upma); Beverages (Nescafe. Nestea, Sunrise) and Dairy (milk, dahi, Milo). I currently continue to be with Nestle. 

How did you get your first break?

In 2017, my college did not have an official campus placement program. So, networking with seniors and lecturers was usually how one could get an interview. In my case, my lecturer told me about the vacancy at Marico and also recommended me and put in a good word about me. Then I had 3 rounds of interviews and was selected to join them.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

I was never prepared to enter the 9-5 corporate world. I always thought I would do an MPH (Masters in Public Health) further and work with an NGO. So adjusting to the business world and dealing with cross-functional marketing teams took some time for me to get used to. However, with the help of great managers, acknowledging my weakness and consciously working towards it helped me overcome the challenges. And obviously with 3+ years of total corporate experience, one gets used to the grind.

Challenge 2: 

Not having a campus placement back then gave way to a lot of uncertainties. Luckily, I got an opportunity within a month after my post-grad. The field of food and nutrition is fairly new, so a lot of people are unaware about the various opportunities. I was always careful to keep in touch with seniors, and alumni. And I made sure I expressed interest in any internship or work my lecturers told us about to let them know I am a willing candidate.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

As mentioned above I work with Nestle as a market nutritionist (NHW Associate). I help support the following activities-

  • support brands/teams through critical evaluation of potential on-pack or off-pack claims or ingredients
  • act as a subject matter expert and support any public health issues, current nutrition trends in India, in house trials, new product development
  • monitor the internal Nestle NHW credentials (NF, NCA, Claims) for the portfolio 
  • achieve internal alignment and provide technical support to various cross- functional teams like Regulatory, Legal and Advocacy.
  • support monitoring and evaluation of risk and impact assessment of food legislation and local regulatory updates to understand impact on the company portfolio. 

What problems do you solve?

Brands want to sell a food product that is tasty and palatable. However, with the ever-rising focus on health and well-being, it has become imperative for them to shift emphasis from just taste to taste as well as nutrition/ nourishment. I help fix this predicament by suggesting ways to make food products more nutritious by means of addition or removal of an ingredient, for example. I also help with narrowing the divide between consumer and the brand by communicating nutritional science in a simplified manner.  

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

One has to be well versed with the science of nutrition. This field is fairly new and science and technology is making leaps and bounds through new discoveries every few years. So it is important to be aware of all the latest updates. One must be prepared to understand what is a fad as against what is genuine and credible information. There is a need to keep abreast of the latest micronutrient policies and commitments; government standards; and what various FMCG companies are doing in the market. Apart from theoretical knowledge of nutritional science, one needs to know the comings and goings of how a business is run. One needs to be aware of the various teams (like marketing, regulatory, supply chain, product development, legal, etc) that work in tandem to launch any one product in the market. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I like to be responsible for communicating credible science to end consumers. I also like to be responsible for nudging brand teams into making a healthier product for the masses. I love to find ways to make a product healthier either by tweaking the recipe and its nutritionals or by fortification, for example. Lately I have been helping with inputs on how the local regulatory bodies can frame new regulations to encourage healthy food products and I have enjoyed the process.

How does your work benefit society?

As a market nutritionist working in an FMCG company, I am responsible for the nutrition attributes of a product. In a way, my end goal is to promote the launch of tasty but health forward products. It gives me immense satisfaction when I contribute to the launch of a product that has been fortified with Iron or has less sugar or fat. Food will remain an important part of our lives as long as mankind exists. So, to be in a position where I can monitor and positively influence the nutrition of the food that is found in the supermarket aisle gives me a sense of pride.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Some of the most memorable work I did was as part of my Nutrition Foundation of India Internship, where I worked at ground zero collecting data on maternal nutrition factors. It allowed me to take a deep dive into the lives of the mothers and their infants and understand their viewpoints on nutrition. I loved being able to extract information from the subjects by means of talking or comprehending their behavior. Giving them nutrition counselling and seeing a behavioral change in these women made me feel like I was making a real difference to their lives. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is okay to not know what you want to be in life right from high school. Feel free to try a bunch of things and be open to new experiences. Doing a myriad of internships and short courses is NOT being fickle-minded but can be construed as gathering experience. We are lucky to be in this day and age where life is not limited to 3-4 professions. Talk to people from various backgrounds to understand what they do and make use of platforms such as these to broaden horizons.

Future Plans?

I would love to gather more experience in this field and work with a governmental organisation at some point since I have only  worked for corporates until now. I also feel that as I have acquired only theoretical knowledge of public health but never formally worked in the field, I would be glad to have an opportunity to that end. There have been times when I have played with the idea of a higher education too. That being said, I do not want to limit myself at this point. I am very open to doing anything as long as my knowledge is being put to good use.