The Properties, Perils and Politics of What We Eat

illustration of packaged food under a microscope

By Geoffrey Douglas

Food. It used to be that there wasn’t much you could say about it—you killed it or planted it, cooked it, picked it from a tree or dug it up from the ground. Then you ate it. And that, for many centuries, was pretty much the end of things. No more. Now there is fast food, slow-cooked food, comfort food, organic food, processed food, food chains, food pyramids, foods blessed (or not) by the FDA. There is food science and food engineering. The government keeps a registry of Food Adulteration Incidents. It puts out a reference source called the World Factbook of Food.

Food is big, and getting bigger—and UMass Lowell researchers are at the center of much of what’s going on.

And it’s not all about what happens in the lab or on the farm. For Zuckerberg College of Health SciencesProf. Katherine Tucker, the focus is on food’s societal impact. Now in the final stage of a 15-year research project, Tucker was recently awarded a $2.5 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of diet on cognitive decline and dementia. (The initial two stages focused on its effects on aging and heart disease.) The current study’s cohort, she says, includes roughly 700 Puerto Rican Boston-area residents, those still remaining from the original group of 1,500.

“In the U.S. today,” she says, “there is a general deficiency of nutrients—like magnesium, potassium, vitamin B6—in the food most of us eat. Without them, there’s a far higher risk of problems like obesity, diabetes and sometimes dementia, all of which are symptoms of too much low-quality processed food.”

Such problems, says Tucker, are far more prevalent among lower-income populations, such as the cohort she is studying: “When you lack the resources to buy healthy foods, you buy the cheapest foods you can—which often means they’re processed and have a longer shelf life, but lack the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients we need for health.”

Tucker, who heads the UMass Lowell Center for Population Health, came by her interest in nutrition early as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, where she took part in a study of the diet practices of teenage African-American girls. Later, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, she witnessed closeup the effects of severe malnutrition: blindness in children with vitamin A deficiencies, goiters in women who lacked sufficient iodine.

“Nutrition is an endlessly fascinating field,” she says. “It touches everyone; it intersects with just about everything.”


Chris Wilkinson comes at things from a wholly different angle. Wilkinson ’09, ’11, winner of the university’s 2016 Haskell Award for Distinguished Teaching, is an adjunct professor of political science whose course, The Politics of Food, aims to “break down the misconceptions our society has surrounding this most necessary commodity,” he says. In doing so, it offers a withering look at what he calls the “gross manipulation” of the system through which food is processed, distributed and sold.

“In a single lifetime, just since World War II, there’s been a fundamental change in our relationship with food,“ Wilkinson says. “What started as a system of locally sourced farming has now become a process of large-scale, monocrop farming, through which a few huge, multinational companies”—Dow Chemical, Monsanto and others—are able to control the production of most of what we eat and drink.

These conglomerates, he explains, manage this through the production of genetically engineered crop seeds, which they then contract with farmers to cultivate. Because the seeds are cheap to produce—being government-subsidized—and often contain properties that organic seeds do not (such as an engineered resistance to herbicides), competition becomes all but impossible. In Mexico alone, he says, since the sales of seeds that followed the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement, “there are thousands of farmers out of work.”

“When you lack the resources to buy healthy foods, you buy the cheapest foods you can—which often means they’re processed and have a longer shelf life, but lack the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients we need for health.”
The net effect of all this, in his view, is “we are robbed of access, of our history and of agency over what’s at the end of our fork.”

Not to mention the issue of the food companies themselves. “You’re talking about just six or seven names,” Wilkinson says, pointing to Kraft, General Mills, Nestlé, Tyson Foods and a few others, “that are behind literally hundreds of brands.”

A brief online search of bottled-water brands alone bears him out. Just about any brand you could name— Perrier, Poland Spring, S.Pellegrino, Dasani, smartwater, Aquafina, Evian, Fiji—are all the properties of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola or Nestlé.

“There’s the illusion of choice,” says Wilkinson, “but really there’s no choice at all.”


For Asst. Prof. Boce Zhang, the big issue is safety—not from the predations of the food industry, but from the dangers of food itself. Zhang, a member of the faculty in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, is a teacher and researcher who came to the realization years ago—while still working with nanotechnology in his native China—that, as he puts it, with public awareness growing, “food safety was going to be the next big thing.”

That brought him to the U.S., where he earned his doctorate in nutrition and food science from the University of Maryland, then worked as a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At UMass Lowell today, he teaches courses in food science and safety; his principal research focus is on the detection and prevention of the various pathogens that contaminate our food.

The biggest challenge, he says, comes with fresh produce: lettuce, spinach and other vegetables and fruits that, in the course of shipping and handling, are sometimes exposed to bacteria-tainted water or laid on unclean surfaces.

Much of Zhang’s research has been devoted to the development of low-cost sensors to detect this; a dye-treated paper he developed is now in the disclosure phase that precedes the awarding of a patent. On the prevention end of things, he is at work to create minimum sanitation levels for water and also, in cooperation with the university’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI), to develop a process to improve the safety of the chemicals used in handling.

“In China, the main threats come from herbicides and pesticides,” he says, while in the U.S., “the bigger problems are biohazards, the bacteria and viruses that can contaminate our food.

“There is an increased public awareness. The consumer wants his fresh salads—and that’s a healthy thing. But it means we have to stay careful.”


While the doctor treating a sick patient will have a thorough knowledge of the most effective pharmaceuticals with which to treat him, she will probably not be as well versed on what diet the patient should follow—and the diet may be as critical to treatment as the drugs.

“A typical student in medical school will take, at most, one or two courses on nutrition,” says nutritional sciencesAdjunct Prof. Michelle Palladino ’11, ’17, who earned a master’s degree in public health from the university last year while also working for three years in the bone marrow transplant unit at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. Most of her job there, she says, was to “work with the doctors and nurses to develop the dietary formulas that were best for each patient.”

“There is an increased public awareness. The consumer wants his fresh salads—and that’s a healthy thing. But it means we have to stay careful.”
There needs to be more awareness and more training in the field of nutrition, says Palladino: “Doctors today have way too much on their plates already to be able to keep up with diet requirements.”

Palladino is in her first year teaching a course in medical nutritional therapy—loosely defined, the science of matching diet with disease. Most of her UMass Lowell students, she says, will begin their careers as dietitians in the same way she did—with jobs in the medical field, where they will work side-by-side with doctors and nurses on patients’ dietary needs at the same time as they educate the patients themselves on their nutritional requirements.

“I tell my students all the time, ‘You are the lead person. As far as diet and nutrition, you are the one. You have to be confident in your knowledge.’”


The MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat, has long been the staple of our soldiers in the field. They carry it with them in a cardboard container—which, once the meal has been eaten, they either add to a bonfire or stow in their packs to carry out. But burning can be a hazard, and a soldier’s pack is already more than full enough. And all those dead cartons are just more drag on the environment.

Jo Ann Ratto Ross ’88, ’93, an investigator for the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, told researchers nearly 10 years ago that annually “there are more than 40 million MREs procured by the military, with about 14,000 tons of MRE packaging waste each year.” And the problem has no doubt gotten worse.

Might there be another way?

This was the focus of plastics engineeringProf. Margaret Sobkowicz-Kline, a former field engineer in the oilfield industry, whose Army-funded research project, completed last year, offers a packaging solution to all these problems at once.

The proposed new container, a biodegradable, moisture-resistant package developed as a joint project with the Army’s Natick Center, combines the Center’s expertise in biodegradability testing with the experience of Sobkowicz-Kline’s department in plastics synthesis and formulation. Her Army colleague on the project was none other than Ratto Ross, a 1993 alumna of the UML plastics engineering doctoral program.

“What we developed was a product that’s both compostable and biodegradable,” says Sobkowicz-Kline, whose research over the past 12 years has focused heavily on sustainable polymers and, more recently, on recycling. “It can be discarded safely on either water or land. That could save a lot of waste.”


HistoryProf. Chad Montrie, like most history professors, tends to take the long view. To his way of thinking, both food and alcohol “are all wrapped up in the history of this country.”

Montrie, who teaches a course called Alcohol and American History, cites examples as far back as the 17th century, when the early settlers traded liquor to the Cherokees “as a way to get their skins and furs without using cash.” More recently, he says, the late 18th- and 19th-century temperance movement was used by many as a way to contain immigrant groups, while the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of the late 19th century was “among the first groups in this country to empower women politically.”

Montrie hopes soon to supplement his alcohol course with a course on food in American history, which has been proposed and is now pending review. Food, he says, is at least as central as alcohol to the history of our country. One idea he would like to try in the course is to “get hold of, say, a 19th-century cookbook, pick a recipe and research what it might have to say about class, race or gender. Like okra, for instance: How did it get here, and what does it have to tell us about slavery? Or Aunt Jemima pancake mix: Aunt Jemima was originally derived from a 19th-century minstrel show character. What might she have to say about pancakes, or about race?”

There is no shortage of modern-day applications, Montrie notes. “Remember that line, ‘A taco truck on every corner,’ that was supposed to be [according to presidential candidate Donald Trump] an argument against Mexican immigration? And right now, in Chicago and other cities, there are ethnic kitchens being closed down by U.S. Immigration and Customs every day.

“Food is everywhere. You don’t have to look very far.”