Self-confessed ‘foodie’ Eli Gasgil wanted to keep as many career options open as possible, but found herself being drawn irrevocably towards working in the food industry. Now happily in her dream job, she credits NRI for giving her the necessary skillset to make the move. Eli takes up the story.
I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have got my current job if I hadn’t studied the MSc in Food Innovation at NRI, University of Greenwich first. Before I did the MSc, I approached a few industry recruiters as I wanted to move into the food industry and needed advice. Every single one told me I needed relevant experience or a qualification.
Food has always been my passion; as a teenager I assumed I’d go on to study food science or food engineering, but when I left school, I wanted to avoid ‘pigeon-holing’ myself too early, so I studied chemical engineering instead as that gave me more scope to work in different industries.
However, whenever it came to choosing modules, I kept being drawn to the ones on food as they were so interesting. I chose modules such as fermentation, introduction to food technology, I did a project on the manufacture of sugar from sugar beet, and I studied the manufacture of soft drinks and fruit juices – so after a while it was clear where my passion lay.
Food is such a broad subject and there are so many different aspects to it. I was chatting to a potential employer and they asked me what aspect of food I was interested in. I thought for a bit and said, “basically everything!” I’m fascinated by how food is manufactured, its nutritional value, what impact processing has on that value, the ingredients used, clean label declaration – all of it is interesting and it’s so relevant to people’s everyday lives and health.
After my first degree, I did a postgraduate certificate in nutrition with the University of Westminster, and it made me determined to get into the food industry proper. I started looking for food-related courses that were local to London as that’s where I’m from and I didn’t want to move away. I went to an open day at the University of Greenwich and met Linda Nicolaides, the Programme leader. We ended up chatting for ages, culminating in her telling me, “Count this as your interview, we’d like to offer you a place on the MSc”!
Linda became my course and personal tutor and Dr Nazanin Zand, now head of the Food and Markets Department at NRI, was my dissertation supervisor and during the MSc I realised that I’m very much a ‘doer’ rather than a researcher. I Ioved the practical elements the most; for example, the development module led by Julie Crenn, a Food Safety Specialist at NRI, during which we did process and product development in the lab. It was very hands-on where I was given a brief and had to make something that matched that brief exactly.
I also loved being in a learning environment with like-minded people, debating food legislation and current topics and talking about the effects these would have on the industry. Food is one of the cornerstones of health, so the more you know about it, the better it is. I think that teaching nutrition should be compulsory in schools, and children should be taught what a balanced diet looks like and how to put together a decent meal from scratch. Potentially this could be combined with home economics where children are taught to cook and recognise what comprises a healthy diet.
I’m often asked for advice from friends who go on so-called ‘fad’ diets. It’s a shame that people aren’t generally aware that restricting or eliminating certain food groups can have detrimental health effects somewhere down the line as they’re missing out on key nutrients.
I’m actually in favour of the recent addition of calorie counts to menus because I think it makes you stop and think about what you’re eating. You might initially choose a salad because you think it’s the healthy option, but then you might notice that because of added ingredients and dressings it’s only 100 calories less than a burger.
I’m very interested in nutrition, but I now realise that I prefer to earn my living working in a different part of the food industry. After finishing the MSc I worked for a company called Silverson who manufacture mixers, a lot of which go into the food industry. After a year there, I got my current position at Ulrick and Short who do functional flours, fibres, proteins and starches. It’s all about plant-based, clean label ingredients (easy to understand, consumer friendly names), with improved textures that stabilise, thicken, emulsify etc. so they are very functional ingredients. It’s my dream job because I get to be involved in the development side as I understand the science and why things are done in certain way and how processing impacts on things. I also provide technical support to people who are doing product development; I’m very happy here.
I’m a self-confessed foodie in that I love cooking and eating but you don’t have to be that way inclined to study food innovation. A lot of product development is focusing closely on one single element rather than creating a wonderful meal. I’ve been a vegetarian for years and one of my areas of interest is the labelling on veggie and vegan products. If you look at, say, a plant burger, you’ll see that there is a list of maybe twenty ingredients, not all of which are products that you’ll either recognise, or associate with eating. I’d like to change what’s in the product label to simply state ‘this is a protein’ rather than give it a complicated E number.
After I graduated, the University’s career service was super helpful. I had a couple of sessions where they helped me re-jig my CV to make it more readable and searchable. The great thing about the Food Innovation MSc is that because both Nazanin and Linda work closely with industry, they’ve designed the course with the requirements of the food industry in mind. It’s a great balance of marketing, packaging, nutrition, food safety – it gives you the complete skillset which makes you really attractive to prospective employers.
I’m lucky to be in my dream job and I don’t have a grand career plan, I’m just focused on the next step, then the one after that, and doing each one really well.
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