3D Food Printing technologies are revolutionizing the food industry through development of healthier food options with unique sensory experiences for consumers !

Deepa Agarwal, our next pathbreaker, works as Food Material Scientist at All G Foods (Sydney, Australia), a plant-based food technology start-up that aims to deliver innovative, affordable, delicious, nutritious, and sustainable products to consumers. 

Deepa talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of plant based products in the development of meat alternatives which can support future needs of our society.

For students, Creativity and Innovation are the most critical ingredients for a career in Food Science !

Deepa, your background?

I had the opportunity to grow up across multiple cities in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India.  My father was a bank manager and therefore was able to transfer to multiple branches throughout his career. I feel fortunate to experience each location, as part of my personal development and journey.  It taught me transferable skills which today, I can apply in business whether it is resilience, my ability to network, transparency or confidence.  

I was a hard-working student, with a deep curiosity for the sciences. I had a keen interest in biology and organic chemistry from the get-go, which ignited my interest in biotechnology. 

I am grateful for the support that I received from both my parents who were economics majors.  They instilled in me from a young age the importance of career and financial independence and encouraged me to pursue my passion. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

My research journey began through my study of a BSc (Hons) in biotechnology from Amity University, Noida, India. I was a motivated and proactive student, which led me to pursue 5 internships in total.  

This hands-on experience really laid the foundation for incredible career opportunities to come, with a clear passion for research and development, specifically in the area of biomaterials (such as protein, carbohydrates, sugars, and lipids) and their applications in food, personal care, pharmaceutical and biomedical industry.

My next move was to pack up my life in India to move to the UK to pursue my MSc in Applied Biomolecular technology at the University of Nottingham. The choice of university was totally based on the subjects offered. I spent a lot of time in advance of selecting my course and university, to ensure the best future outcomes for myself and my career. The university ranking played a very important role in my selection of the University of Nottingham.  

During this period, I had the opportunity to conduct a research project at an ingredient company based in Norway. It was an incredibly exciting opportunity where I was able to hone my theoretical studies in the application of biomaterials for food, personal care, and pharmaceutical industry. That’s when my true passion for food science was ignited!

Upon the successful completion of my masters, I moved directly onto my PhD in food science (food material and structure science) from The University of Nottingham which was fully funded by Borregaard AS and Oslo Regionale Forskningsfond (Norwegian government).

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

My interest from an early stage was in biology and organic chemistry. By the time I was applying for my undergraduate studies, in the early 2000’s, biotechnology was already an emerging career i.e., a research-based career aimed at supporting innovation and a scientific approach to solving real-time and future problems across the world. 

I was also fortunate to have a family member, Prof Arun Goyal – a plant scientist who completed his PhD in Life Sciences from the University of Wollongong, Australia. He was the first person in my life who seeded the concept of a research career, with great impact at a very early age. 

Two scientists who have also inspired me are Marie Salomea Skłodowska–Curie, physicist and chemist who pioneered research on radioactivity and the first female Nobel prize (twice winner), a mathematician Katherine Johnson – first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist, and Dr Kalpana Chawla – an astronaut and aerospace engineer who was the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. The commonality of these trailblazers was their unwavering commitment to sciences and what I believe to be a breakthrough for the modern world.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

As mentioned earlier, during my undergrad I was very proactive and worked as an intern in-between semesters, in different research streams. For example, I did two internships focused on molecular biotechnology at the National institute of immunology (NII), and in the plant science department of Amity University. 

I then went on to complete two more internships focused on biochemistry, one at Advance research & analytical services (ARAS) and in the biochemistry department of Amity University.  My first exposure to biomaterial sciences was during my undergrad final year research project at Birla institute of scientific research (BISR), which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Completing these internships was foundational in paving out my career pathway. 

My internships were intense and involved incredible learning at the same time.  My first two internships were focused on molecular biotechnology.  What does this mean?  My time was spent mapping and planning experiments, extractions, and analysis of plant and bacterial DNA.  My following two internships were biochemistry-based which focused on characterisations of different biochemical compounds using advance techniques, such as chromatography and spectroscopy. 

The internships allowed me to develop crucial skills such as designing experiments and understanding the importance of safe operating protocols while conducting experiments. My final year undergrad research project focused on understanding the functional properties of food-grade polysaccharides such as xanthan, gum arabica and gum acacia using various advance techniques. The aim was how functional properties of these gums can be used in food and pharmaceutical applications. 

My master’s research project was focused on developing food model systems using cellulosic textural enhancer – a natural and green ingredient to replace fats from foods such as mayonnaise, sausages, and yoghurts. With an increase in consumer dietary requirements and increasing health concerns related to fats, new strategies are required to reduce fat in foods without affecting sensory experience. Hence, we found plant cellulose-based ingredients can facilitate fat reduction without compromising nutritional composition and sensory experience. This project really highlights the versatility and positive impact of biomaterials, and started my journey in the food science.

Whilst completing my masters, I had the opportunity to participate in a research project at an ingredient company named Borregaard AS, based in Norway. This one opportunity then led me to working in Norway for 1.5 years with an R&D team. During this time I was able to further develop and hone my skills from the commercial aspect, related to research of biomaterials in foods. 

This period really sparked my passion in food science and led me directly into my PhD in food material sciences (Food structure), under scholarship from Borregaard AS and the Norwegian government. PhD in food structure means I studied spatial organization of different food components arising from the assembly and interactions of macromolecules such as protein, lipids, and carbohydrates. It relates directly to texture and the consumer perception of foods. 

My PhD thesis was directly linked with a master’s internship and work experience at Borregaard AS. The work was focused on the fundamental understanding of interactions of cellulosic material with other biomaterials and how it impacts the food structure and sensory experience of foods. 

PhD study was followed by two consecutive research fellowships i.e., 2 years at Pipers crisps, UK funded by Innovate UK and 1 year at University of Nottingham, UK.

Throughout my career journey, I was able to translate fundamental science into real products for consumers. For instance, working at Borregaard AS and PhD research allowed the sponsoring company to develop and launch food-grade and green ingredients for food and personal care applications. Similarly, fundamental understanding of food flavors during research fellowship at Pipers crisps enabled the company to launch new and unique flavored products for consumers as well as an extended shelf-life of the final product for the export market. 

After research fellowships in the UK, I had the opportunity to work for New Zealand crown research institute i.e., Plant and Food Research (PFR), NZ, as a Research Scientist for their food innovation portfolio. During my 4.5 years at PFR, I was involved in research projects which focused on developing new ingredients and 3D Food Printing technology, to develop healthier foods options with unique sensory experience for consumers. An example of 3D Printed foods, is  the development of gluten-free snack-bites using chickpea and lupin flour which used 3D food printing technology to create airgaps between the different layers to improve the texture of gluten-free products.

Besides food applications, at PFR I was providing technical expertise on biomaterials functionality and applicability in 3D biomedical printing and bio-protection applications. This experience really expanded my skills and knowledge beyond food. Being able to support and develop ingredients using natural and clean biomaterials (not pesticides/fungicides) to protect plants/crops against diseases really highlights the versatility of the natural materials., and more importantly highlighted skills and knowledge that I acquired which are not limited to foods.  

At the end of this period, I did begin to miss working within a food manufacturing environment.  When the call came through to join an exciting food technology start up All G Foods in Australia, I jumped at the opportunity.  

How did you get your first break?

My first break was when Prof Tim Foster at the University of Nottingham, UK offered me an internship at Borregaard AS, Norway, and then Dr Hans Henrik Øvrebø offered a researcher position straight after the internship at Borregaard AS. I believe Borregaard AS was my first break in the food ingredient and manufacturing industry.  

Where do you work now? you solve? What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills? 

Currently, I am working for All G Foods (AGF), Australia, as a food material scientist. All G foods is a plant-based food technology start-up with a mission “to design a sustainable food future – one that is limitlessly good”. AGF aims “to deliver innovative, affordable, delicious, nutritious, and sustainable products that will entice and delight consumers”. 

According to the UN, with growing population and consumer demand, global meat production is projected to double by 2050. However, excessive meat production has many negative environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emission, animal waste, high water consumption etc. Hence, making meat alternatives from plants and fermentation can support our future needs and modernize meat production. 

What problems do you address?

In my current role, I apply my skills and knowledge in plant-based ingredients to develop different plant-based foods with meaty sensory experience for consumers. I study the interaction between different plant-based ingredients and how different processes impact the structural integrity and nutritional composition of the food, and more importantly, how ingredients and processing impact the taste and texture of plant-based foods. This will allow the development of plant-based meat alternatives such as plant-based sausage, nuggets, mince, dumplings etc. for the consumers. 

Most of the skills and knowledge required for this role, I have gained through hands-on work experience, proactive participation in work trials/conferences and asking questions if doubt.

What’s a typical day like? What is it you love about this job?

On a typical day, I turn ON key machines to warm-up and attend meetings (if any). Once the machines are ready to use, I start conducting experiments as planned. While the machines are doing their job, I prepare samples for the next day, followed by data processing, write reports, and communicate findings with stakeholders. What I love about this job is the freedom to be creative, innovative, and develop something new and healthier for people and the planet. 

How does your work benefit society? 

With growing world population and climate change, future food supply and security is a challenge and is a very critical issue for global, national, and local authorities. Now is the time for researchers and industry to rethink the future of food. Hence, developing healthier foods based on innovative technologies & processing is of great importance and a strategic priority for governing bodies. At All G Foods, I am supporting different R&D activities that are coming up with potential solutions to some of these challenges.      

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

The most memorable work I did was with Pipers Crisps, UK. I helped in developing and launching two new flavored potato crisps and it was well received by people. 

I was fortunate enough to overhear a consumer singing praises of Pipers crisps flavour profiles (including mine). It filled me with a sense of pride and satisfaction. It made me realize how small contributions in science can bring joy to people. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Some of the key things that worked for me may not work for others. We are all on very different paths and that’s a good thing. What I can say is, when deciding the next steps to study for a career, do your own research about the career path you want for yourself. And wherever possible, talk to people, but always follow the path that interests you. If you’re not sure, that’s ok too, continue your research and brainstorm ideas again and again until you find something that strongly piques your interests.

Future Plans?

I am a researcher and I love learning; hence, I’ll continue to develop my skills and knowledge. Being able to translate research to solutions that address real-time challenges has been the highlight of my career and I wish to continue in that pathway.