Vitafoods Insights is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

‘I’ve always been driven by the applicability of nutrition and health research’ - Alwine Kardinaal [Interview]

Article-‘I’ve always been driven by the applicability of nutrition and health research’ - Alwine Kardinaal [Interview]

Women in Nutrition interview with Alwine Kardinaal
Alwine Kardinaal is a nutrition scientist whose research work helps companies develop food products with health benefits.

As principal scientist in the health team at Dutch food research company NIZO, Kardinaal’s focus is on multidisciplinary projects and research programmes – both precompetitive and contract research – with its food industry customers.

What kind of projects are you involved in at NIZO?

“These projects aim at understanding and demonstrating the role of foods and ingredients in achieving nutritional and health benefits, in particular in the areas of gut and immune health. We do this with state-of-the-art technologies in preclinical and clinical studies and I am closely monitoring the innovations in this field and looking for relevant collaborations.

“I was trained as a nutrition scientist and I have always been driven by the applicability of nutrition and health research – science is one aspect, but there is a lot more that companies need to take into account in developing foods with health benefits: technical feasibility, cost, regulatory requirements, consumer attitudes, and, of course, taste and appearance.

“I can add my part, but it is especially rewarding if you can connect all the dots as part of an expert team. And that is what I like about an organisation such as NIZO: the collaborative efforts and the diversity of topics.”

In addition to this role at NIZO, you are theme director for healthy nutrition at the Next Food Collective. What does this involve?

“Next Food Collective is a partnership of academia, research institutes, corporates, and [small and medium enterprises] SMEs, building public-private collaborations to speed up the transition to a more sustainable and healthier food system. As theme director, I support the initiation and execution of nutrition-related projects, in which the interests of all partners are addressed. There is a bit of overlap with my work at NIZO, but in Next Food Collective I am more involved in the process, rather than the content.”

Is it difficult juggling the responsibilities of these two roles at the same time? How do you manage?

“This is not always easy, but in both organisations, I am part of an excellent team, with great project managers and supporting staff. Managing expectations helps, and l try to be always very clear about which ‘hat’ I am wearing. I see definite advantages in combining these two roles; there is a cross fertilisation of ideas and contacts that works quite well.”

You obtained your MSc in human nutrition from Wageningen University in 1984 and began working at TNO in 1988. How has the food science and research field changed since then, specifically for female professionals?

“I have always worked in organisations with a fair representation of women, in science as well as management. Maybe that is one of the reasons why I do not remember experiencing specific hurdles due to being a woman.

“Although I do still remember that, after visiting an IT event [...] as a databank manager after graduating, the info I had requested was sent to Mr Kardinaal. I was furious!

“And I guess the biggest changes since then have been made possible by huge advances in computer power, and of course the internet. International collaborations are so much easier, datasets can be processed so much faster, and information exchanged more widely.”

In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting developments happening in the field of nutrition science and nutraceutical R&D at the minute?

“There is so much going on, but just a few things that I think are very relevant [are] linking nutritional quality to sustainable production and processing [because] one should not go without the other. Also, the ever-expanding insights into the relation between the functionality of our gut microbiome and health and wellbeing – what is a healthy microbiome, and how may we modulate an unhealthy microbiome to influence our health?

“[In addition], the use of precision fermentation to produce valuable compounds, which of course is also related to sustainability, [and] digital twin technology to study human physiology. Understanding individual variation in response to diet may help us tackling big problems such as obesity, and modelling large amounts of individual data may be one of the approaches supporting this.”

What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle you have faced in your career so far and how did you overcome it?

“Maybe it was not really an obstacle but, at some point, my career moved towards larger responsibilities in line management, and I was drifting away from the hands-on science. The experiences in that role have been extremely valuable, but I realised I truly missed the content. I made the choice to switch back to science and I believe that was the best thing I could have done because I still enjoy the challenges that brings.”