What do you get when you combine a dietitian, with a passion for food, cooking, nutrition science and the ability to communicate practical nutrition advice to improve the health of the population, in a delicious way? That’s culinary nutrition!
In our recent podcast with dietitian, food scientist, gastronomist, and culinary nutritionist Emma Stirling (Instagram @emmastirling), we sat down for a delicious conversation about how to embrace the world of culinary nutrition and bring these emerging and dynamic skills into your practice to expand employment and business opportunities.
In your words, what is culinary nutrition?
It’s the age-old question. We actually don’t really have a consensus on a definition at the moment, but to me, it’s really about taking a great passion for food, putting the deliciousness back into nutrition and leading with a food first philosophy. And that philosophy will also acknowledge that cooking is at the core. (The area of food and culinary nutrition is quite well advanced in the US; but even they’re still debating exactly what it encompasses and how to lead in this space). I think it’s also, for us as dietitians, recognising the huge growth in opportunities in our profession as we upscale and move into brand new territories. Today, I’ve mentored dietitians that have got dream jobs in culinary nutrition that I would’ve only hoped would have been available when I graduated. This is brand new territory for us.
You’re really pioneering this area, Emma! Tell me about some of the key skills and competencies dietitians need to practise culinary nutrition and start embracing this space.
I think you can certainly up-skill and I am forever learning myself, but first, I’d like to acknowledge that food service dietitians have been experts in menu development and speaking to chefs for decades. We know community dietitians have been running cooking interventions and a nod to my food industry colleagues; some are complete experts in food supply chains and all those intricacies. As a profession we have an incredibly strong base.
- We need to package those skills in a new way to drive opportunities. What I’m doing in my role as an academic is to try and really instil, into student dietitians, that ultimately you will do incredibly well if you have an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of food. And a very easy way to fast track an in- depth knowledge and appreciation of food is to cook.
- A lot of what we talk about in culinary nutrition is being able to develop, write and test a recipe. But this alone is an incredibly complex skill. Strong recipe writers write for their audience, and they write consistently. For example, are they writing for an audience that knows what the word sauté means? Or do they need to write a slightly longer method that says, “lightly brown in a fry pan with a little extra virgin olive oil.”
- Obviously where we have an edge is that we have the food science and nutrition knowledge as well. So it’s about being a real expert user of things like FoodWorks. Knowing what databases to select, how are you going to analyse this recipe? Do you need to pull it apart and analyse it in three sections? How are you going to calculate yield, specific gravity? You know, are you going to send off some items to the laboratory for analysis because they are either deep fried, and have absorbed oil, or they’ve changed in the cooking process.
- Other skills are allergen management, food styling, food photography, menu development, recipe demonstration, food law, food service architecture and so much more.
You essentially wrote the book on food science! Can you tell us more about “Understanding the Science of Food?”
Absolutely. In all my years of writing (I’ve written for women’s magazines and I’ve had columns, had the opportunity to publish some books and also cookbooks) this is certainly the text that I’m most proud of and I hope, will be part of my legacy. It’s written as an academic textbook, designed for undergraduate students. The focus is not only on food science, but the culinary nutrition side. I’ve been an academic now for a few years and it was a real gap that we saw; we had to rely on US or UK textbooks with their different food supply and eating habits.
It’s incredibly exciting to be able to publish the first, food science textbook of its kind for the Australian market. Always being inspired by chefs, I wanted to acknowledge chefs as well. So throughout the book, we’ve sort of stripped away the science in sections, and actually heard from the experts as well. So people like Maggie Beer, my local baker – one of the best sourdough bakers in Melbourne – because I think it’s incredibly important to hear from people that have absolutely perfected their craft. It was a huge bonus as well that my co-author Sharon Croxford (we’ve become kindred spirits through our love of culinary nutrition) is a dietitian, trained as a chef and actually ran a cooking school for a number of years in Istanbul. It was a great joy to collaborate and write the book with her.
Let’s talk about one of my favourite case studies – Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and how this really demonstrates culinary nutrition in practise?
EVOO is a perfect example where we, as dietitians, can take a leadership role. On one hand, we’ve got this gorgeous absolutely golden, beautiful, fresh olive juice and then on the flip side, we’ve got all these crazy urban myths saying, “Oh, you can’t cook with it and you can’t do this; don’t heat it”. That’s where, as dietitians, we can come in with the food science and bust those myths. It’s the food science that is able to show us that yes, you can cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, that it has this incredible variety of bioactive compounds which are higher than many of our mainstream cooking oils. And the same time as culinary nutritionists and dietitians, we need to start to talk about flavour so we can use this to our advantage, particularly with chefs as well and trying to get into those collaborations. We can talk about things like the Oloecanthal, which have those beautiful peppery flavour notes.
It’s the food science that actually sets us apart and helps us and drive our collaborations as well. (View an infographic on EVOO science, cooking facts and key practice points).
Another great example is sofrito, which is the Italian term for starting off your tomato, onions and garlic when you’re cooking, sort of like say a pasta sauce. In a recent study, just one single dose of sofrito had an absolute acute effect on anti-inflammatory markers. So there’s a lot more to the health story, the whole food effect and food synergy, and the positive advantages of what happens when we cook food and then ultimately the whole meal effect.
Do you have any other stand-out examples of culinary nutrition?
There are many dietitians doing incredible work in culinary nutrition. Sarah Leung (Instagram @capturingyumminess) was one that really impressed me when she was relatively fresh into private practice. Instead of taking newly diagnosed clients for a diabetes consultation, she actually turned part of her practice, which had a kitchen, into a diabetes COOKsultation. Instead of coming and sitting across the desk and seeing the dietitian, she took that new client straight into the kitchen, which was all set up for culinary education, so she could show them the pantry, she could quickly demonstrate some cooking methods, show portion sizes. And I just thought: what a fabulous idea – a COOKsultation
There’s some dream jobs out there. One of the things that was recently on my radar was Spotify who recently advertised for a head of food and nutrition for their head office in New York. And this person had to have really strong culinary and nutrition skills. The job description was to be the culinary expert “helping to feed the band”. The idea that these huge corporations are now valuing corporate health, and that involves actually feeding their employees and making sure they are fit for work – what a dream job!
This article has been adapted from a podcast, supported by Cobram Estate – Australia’s leading producer of high quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil.