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Food Science Professor Brings Challenge & Opportunity to Students story by Kamaile kenny and Caleigh Martella

Remember when you were a kid and a bug landed in your food so your parents would say, “Oh, no big deal, just extra protein,”? Well, that saying may just become a reality as food science research is being conducted on the viability and acceptance of using bugs as a sustainable food ingredient.

Dr. Amy Lammert, a Cal Poly Food Science professor, and her students are a few of the scientists who are conducting research on ground-breaking and innovative topics such as this.

The idea first came about when Dominic Rovai, a Food Science graduate student at Cal Poly, went to Dr. Lammert with this unusual proposal of entomophagy for a potential research project. Entomophagy is the consumption of bugs.

“When people first hear about this they think, ‘are you crazy?’,” said Rovai.

No matter how out-of-the-box the idea seemed, Dr. Lammert jumped on board and supported Rovai as his mentor throughout the research process which, is ongoing. Dr. Lammert’s involvement and dedication to her students and how she propels them to learn and gain new experiences are evident through these types of projects. She combines her passion for food science and students by going above in beyond in her teaching methods and truly embodies the Cal Poly motto of Learn By Doing.

“There are going to be potentially 9 billion people in 2050 so, we're not going to have enough food to feed the population. A lot of agricultural practices do impact the environment and entomophagy is one way to approach getting a food source and not negatively impacting the environment,” said Dr. Lammert.

Photo by Jan Kopriva

The biggest challenge with this project is understanding how United States consumers would accept bugs being used in food products. The initial reaction from people is currently disgust but changing that narrative will take time, research, and a lot of trial and error in order to first, make a desirable product and also promote the environmental benefits of adopting bug farming. Rovai is currently experimenting with harvesting mealworms under different growth conditions. The team has also considered crickets but there is one caveat— they jump!

“If you think about it, lobster was the bug of the ocean, shrimp was the bug of the ocean. So I think it's finding how people will adapt to these types of products. At the end of the day, if we can deliver better nutrition, or more sustainable nutrition to humans, in a transparent way, I believe it will work,” said Dr. Lammert.

Currently, the research team is in the very early stages of this project looking at the different functional properties of various insects and how they might be able to use them in food. They are also conducting a lot of consumer insights by looking at who could potentially be an adopter of these food products and be willing to implement them into their diet. The future of this project is still unknown but according to both Dr. Lammert and Rovai, a potential business venture could come out of it.

Photo by Jovana Askrabic

Another powerful perspective that Dr. Lammert has, which is also highly beneficial for her students, is that she has had years of industry experience before she decided to become a professor. She has worked with major food companies such as Kraft Foods, Conagra, and Pepsico. Her transition into teaching came about when her family decided to move back to California from the midwest and chose San Luis Obispo as their permanent destination. Dr. Lammert lived in California before when she worked for Conagra as an Analytical Food Chemist in Fullerton, CA.

One way Dr. Lammert brings hands-on industry experience to her students is through a Sensory Fee-For-Service project. Outside food companies use this program in order to have their products validated with sensory panels and other consumer insight research. Companies want to validate their products in order to make sure they are meeting consumer taste preferences.

A student pours gelatin into sample cups to later be tested.

This gives opportunities for students to conduct tests and research that are done in the “real world” and on top of that, they also get paid for their work.

A student is seen testing samples and inputing data.

“When [students] go work for a company, they'll have seen what questions are asked, they'll know how to set up a test, they'll know how to design and execute a test, analyze data, and more importantly, think on the fly when they run into an issue,”

Dr. Lammert said when talking about the importance of the program for her students.

Samples are stored at room temperature in order to set.

Sensory evaluations include tests that provide information on the five senses: taste, smell, sight, sound, and feel. They are important because they help a company determine what consumer preferences are at the time and how they can make their products more desirable. Much like in agricultural communications, sensory is crucial in relaying what the general consumer has to say to scientists who are making all of the technical decisions.

“The consumer doesn't use the same language as the scientist. So, as a sensory scientist, you have to be able to transform what they're saying, in a way that's easy for the scientist to understand and implement,” said Dr. Lammert.

Dr. Lammert and students preparing samples. | Photos by Caleigh Martella and Moses Mike

Students on the sensory team are hired by Dr. Lammert when they express their interest in a future with food sensory. They gain great communication skills by working in a high-stakes, team environment and they also learn to speak up when they see an issue and make diligent decisions on the fly.

“Dr. Lammert’s a great teacher,” said Rovai, “She’s very interactive with the students and does a great job getting us hands-on experience. She's one of those professors who are willing to change in order to meet students’ needs, especially since COVID-19.”

Since the start of the pandemic, procedures have looked very different for this team but nonetheless, they have persevered. Dr. Lammert has made sure that there is extra sanitation time during work sessions, that all students wear masks and face shields, and that social distancing is maintained. One main challenge during the pandemic has been working with consumers and performing sensory tests with them. Dr. Lammert and her team came up with an in-home use test, also called iHUT, where bags are filled with everything necessary for the test and step-by-step instructions are given for the consumer to take home.

Dr. Lammert grew up in Michigan where she attended junior college and worked at Dow Chemical in a food lab where her love for food science first sparked.

“My mom always said to get a job where you feel guilty taking your paycheck every week because you're having so much fun doing it. So I did,” said Dr. Lammert.

Her experiences at Dow Chemical propelled her to attend Michigan State University where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Food Science. From there, she went on to earn her Masters in Food and Nutrition with a focus in Sensory and her PhD in Food Science with a focus in Food Chemistry from the University of Illinois.

In recent years, Dr. Lammert has also published research manuscripts for dairy science, food neophobia (avoidance of new foods) in children, and looking at different ways to measure consumer sensory responses to berries.

Dr. Lammert’s energy lights up any room and her excitement for her students shines through as she talked about these various projects. Her students admire her passion for the work she does and values that she is always pushing them to achieve great things.

Top Left: Dr. Lammert tasting a sample; Top Right: Dr. Lammert instructing student on next steps; Bottom Photos: Students distributing take-home sensory tests. Photos by Caleigh Martella and Dr. Lammert.
Photo by Caleigh Martella; Header photo by Cal Poly PhotoShelter

Caleigh Martella is a third-year Agricultural Communication student with minors in Spanish and Agribusiness. Check out her experiences on LinkedIn!

Kamaile Kenny is a fourth-year Agricultural Science student.