Joining the Conversation—Telling the Food Science Story

For many years now, the food science community has struggled with how to tell the food science story in the age of increasingly skeptical consumers. With the growth of pseudoscience “experts” and opinion-driven advocates like the Food Babe, food scientists have often felt bewildered about how to bring a rational, science-based voice to the conversation. Even worse, they often feel left out of the conversation entirely and without the tools or skills that they need to join the conversation with the informed view that sound food science can offer.

The struggle to tell the food science story has been an ongoing theme throughout the food industry and a major topic of conversation among food trade associations, as well as at national and international food conferences. But at this year’s annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in Chicago, the conversation took a major step forward as several keynote speakers and featured panel discussion sessions took the topic head-on and started to offer food scientists the strategies and the tactics they need to start using their storytelling skills to effectively deliver the food science message.

During the IFT Leadership Summit, one of the featured speakers was Trevor Butterworth, a co-founder of the non-profit, non-partisan Sense about Science organization. His presentation on “Effective Science Communication” provided practical tips and real-world examples of how food scientists can effectively engage with the mainstream media to tell their story. He emphasized transparency, authenticity and presenting science in simple, easy to understand stories. He also urged spokespeople to “know your audience” and engage with them in conversations instead of attacking them for their lack of scientific literacy. The Sense about Science group has even published “A Media Guide for Scientists” with practical advice on dealing with journalists before, during and after a media interview.

A featured panel discussion during the IFT16 scientific sessions focused on “Food Trends vs. Food Fads.” The IFT_07558_InsideImageindustry experts on the panel all agreed that the food-science community needs to do a better job of presenting the food-science story to consumers. The panel discussed the explosive growth in social media and the need for food scientists to participate in the “two-way conversation” regarding processed food and functional ingredients necessary in delivering a safe, nutritious and abundant food supply, especially in the area of clean labels and simple ingredients. Food Business News reported on the panel in a feature story on “The complicated reality of simple ingredients.”

Also at IFT16, a keynote address from Bev Postma, an international food policy specialist, drew a standing room only crowd.  Titled “Taming Dragons in the Age of Pseudoscience,” Ms. Postma’s presentation focused on how to engage the pseudoscientists and the opinion-driven advocates in meaningful conversations to help tell the food-science story. She offered several direct ideas to food scientists to help build an emotional connection during those conversations including:
1.    Enter every conversation assuming there is something to learn.
2.    Express empathy and genuinely seek to understand the other side’s positions.
3.    Listen with the intent of building mutual understanding.

As Ms. Postma pointed out, once an emotional connection is made, scientists can steer the conversation to the many ways that science and technology can benefit consumers and their food supply.

By far the most important new development at IFT16 was the increased willingness of the food-science community to join in the ongoing conversation and become more proactive in telling the food-science story. Expect to see more activity and media coverage as more food scientists and their spokespeople get involved in talking about all of the important and necessary benefits that food science brings to our rapidly growing world.