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‘Rather than focus on gender balance, I think it’s more important to attract people from diverse backgrounds and ethnic groups’ - Carrie Ruxton [Interview]

Women in Nutrition interview with Carrie Ruxton
While the fields of dietetics and nutrition are female-dominated, this is changing slowly, says nutritionist and health communicator Carrie Ruxton. She tells us why she believes it is important to attract people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.

Dietitian and founder of Nutrition Communications Carrie Ruxton has a PhD in child nutrition and has over 100 published articles on diet and health. Based in Scotland, she frequently works with the food industry to advise manufacturers on new product development, especially using functional ingredients, and how they can make on-pack health claims that are both accurate from a regulatory perspective and engaging from a consumer perspective. We caught up with her to find out more about her career to date, her professional bugbears, and the wider challenges faced by the food and nutrition industries.

What attracted you to a career in nutrition?

“While at school, I wanted to be a medic but didn’t get the right grades, so I went to study dietetics. However, I found that hospital work wasn’t for me and gravitated towards the food industry after completing my PhD.

“What I actually do these days is science communications and storytelling, where I translate the scientific literature into key messages and ideas for different stakeholder groups including consumers, media, health professionals and food industry personnel.

What have been the biggest challenges in your career to date?

“I have been lucky enough to avoid major challenges in my career – I think this is because I have no fixed view of what my career should look like and I’m constantly open to opportunities and learning experiences.

“I have bug bears, of course, which include the fast pace of the food industry where people are impatient for instant results. This isn’t possible with research, reputation and persuasion which can all take months or years to get right.

“Another one is the occasional conflict between what a company might want to claim for a food and what the evidence or the law requires. In my books, the evidence wins every time even if it puts a dampener on a compelling – although perhaps misleading – claim.”

Dietetics is a very female-dominated profession. According to a 2020 survey by Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), 92% of registered dietitians in the US identify as female. Why do you think this is, and should the sector be looking to attract more men?

“Initially food and complementary health professions, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and dietetics were viewed as female professions, but this is changing slowly and I see far more men in Europe forging careers in dietetics and nutrition.

“Rather than focus on gender balance, I think it’s more important to attract people from diverse backgrounds and ethnic groups who are curious about the science and have a passion to put this into practice – whether that’s by working in a hospital, running a private clinic or working in the food industry to create healthier products for consumers.”

You are a board member of Food Standards Scotland, the body responsible for ensuring safe food across Scotland and giving independent advice to the Scottish Government. Why is it important that a nutritionist sits on this board?

“It’s actually not important because Food Standards Scotland employs an impressive team of registered nutritionists who do a great job. However, it helps me as a board member – tasked with a strategic governance role rather than executive responsibilities – to better understand what the organisation is trying to achieve and to be a critical friend on nutrition-related policies.

“I’ve also had to learn about the other aspects of Food Standard Scotland’s work, such as food safety, authenticity and audit which were outside my comfort zone as a dietitian.”

Consumers say they are more interested than ever in their health and want to eat healthily - yet levels of diet-related disease continue to rise. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the food supplement and nutrition industry?

“There are several. Firstly, navigating the conflict between what consumers say they want – healthier foods from high quality, high welfare ingredients – and what they actually buy and eat: less healthy foods that are cheap.

“Secondly, ensuring that nutraceutical propositions are affordable and resonate with the health issues that are top of the list for consumers.

“And thirdly, working with the relevant authorities to make the health claims regulations work better for consumers, [for example] by translating the dry authorised claims into something people can understand.

“I would also like to see a review of Article 12c of the health claims regulation which bans dietitians and nutritionists from making claims in commercial communications while allowing unqualified celebrities to do this.”

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