September 27, 2012

Healthy eating trend draws students to UMaine's food science program

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

Brianna Hughes of New Gloucester wants everyone to eat better, so she's working with local food companies to help make products that are safer and more nutritious for consumers.

To that end, she is pursuing a doctorate in food science at the University of Maine, where such hands-on work is part of the curriculum.

At a time when enrollment at Maine is down overall, a record number of students are enrolling in the university's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Food science students learn about technologies that allow for foods to be processed in ways that retain more nutrients, increase shelf life and improve safety. Human nutrition students study the role that food and nutrients play in human health.

The department has 190 undergraduates and 40 graduate students this year, said Jimmy Jung, the university's vice president for enrollment management. That's up from 165 undergraduate students in each of the past two years.

The only other majors at the university that are gaining enrollment are chemical engineering, which grew to 143 undergraduates last year from 75 students in 2007, and zoology, which increased to 77 undergraduates in 2011 from 42 in 2007.

"Both in nutrition and in food science, enrollments are up," said Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. "We have the only approved food science program in northern New England and the only approved (four-year) undergraduate dietetics curriculum in Maine."

The students in Orono are following a national trend. According to Ryan O'Malley, spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the number of college graduates in the nutrition field increased 84 percent from 2004 to 2011, from 3,122 to 5,732 nationwide.

They're also bucking a trend at UMaine, whose enrollment is projected to be down 1 to 2 percent -- 100 to 200 students -- from last year, with a total of about 11,100.

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland offers a two-year dietetics technology program. College spokesman Matt Wickenheiser said the major has been at its capacity of 48 students for the past five years. He said about double that number would enroll in the program if the college had available spots.

Selling point

University of Maine students cite the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition's active role in research as one of its selling points.

"What attracted me when I visited the campus was how involved all the professors are in research and helping Maine companies," said Hughes, who got her undergraduate degree in food science and agricultural chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, then worked for a year in quality control at Oakhurst Dairy in Portland.

Much of what the department's professors and students do in food science involves working with Maine companies to develop and improve products.

One example is the work that Camire has done with Eldertide Farm in Dresden to investigate the antioxidant potential of elderberries. Eldertide Farm grows organic elderberries, and produces a health-promoting syrup from the berries under the Anthoimmune label.

In the past, Hughes worked with Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine to develop an artisan goat cheese fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. "I don't believe (the farm) has commercialized it yet," Hughes said.

Hughes, whose doctoral focus is seafood, is working with undergraduates and the university's Aquaculture Research Institute to develop a land-based abalone aquaculture industry in Maine.

Rachel Wilkinson, a junior nutrition major from South Portland, said the active role that research and product development plays in the department has made her very satisfied with her choice of major.

"It surpasses my expectations," Wilkinson said. "I haven't had a professor yet that hasn't interested me. They all have interesting research they've done on their own."

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)