National Chemistry Week


This year for Chemistry Week, we wanted to introduce some of our team from the Fonterra Research & Development Centre (FRDC) where chemistry is a fundamental part of their roles. 

Alice Smialowska, Senior Research Scientist – Food Chemistry Team

What recent breakthroughs or innovations in functional foods have you been involved in, and how do they promote better health? 

I have been working on developing novel MPC (Milk Protein Concentrate) ingredients that could open up the ability for our customers to make innovative, high protein foods that support the multiple benefits related to higher protein intake. 

Andrew Fletcher, Programme Leader – Sustainable Food Systems 

Can you explain the significance of chemistry in achieving sustainability in food production and reducing the environmental impact of dairy production? 

Chemistry is fundamental to our ability to successfully reduce rumen methane emissions. Methanogens provide a service to the cow by converting excess hydrogen created in the rumen into methane, which is from the cow’s perspective harmless. Chemistry helps in identifying compounds that can interfere with the methane production process and providing an alternate use for the surplus hydrogen, to prevent this affecting the animal. It is also critical that we understand the breakdown processes and eventual fate of any novel compounds we look to introduce into the diets of food producing animals. 

Brad White, Research Scientist – Analytical Science Team

FRDC's engagement with the community and schools is important. Can you share stories or initiatives that demonstrate the significance of promoting an understanding of chemistry in food science and health? 

I’ve had the opportunity to engage with the community to promote science as a career. My colleagues and I have run many science shows at the local museum where we perform a number of exciting experiments to engage younger kids. We have a real need to grow interest in science careers, so I feel very privileged to be able to share my passion for science with so many people and hope to see many take up a career in science. 

Daisy Wilkie, Technical Officer – Analytical Science Team

In your view, what are some of the most exciting contributions that chemistry can make to improving the world through food innovation and health? 

By breaking food down into its basic components, we are better able to understand how it can be beneficial to human health, as well as how we can alter some of these components to make it even more nutritious. By successfully fortifying milk products such as baby formula with compounds like human milk oligosaccharides that make it more like breast milk, we are able to ensure that the next generation is getting the nutrients they need to grow up healthy and strong.  

Gaile Dombroski, Research Scientist – Analytical Science Team

How does chemistry help in achieving the creation of highest quality products without compromising taste? 

Flavour chemistry is very complex – the way we perceive sweetness can be swayed. It is possible to modify levels of different sugars, to a point where a product still tastes great, has the health benefits of dairy but with much improved sugar levels. We also use chemistry to separate and analyse the amount in products – this information allows consumers to make informed dietary choices. 

I have been working on developing novel MPC (Milk Protein Concentrate) ingredients that could open up the ability for our customers to make innovative, high protein foods that support the multiple benefits related to higher protein intake. 

Alice Smialowska, Senior Research Scientist, Food Chemistry Team, Fonterra Research & Development Centre (FRDC)

Grant Abernethy, Principal Scientist – Food Assurance Science Team

How does chemistry play a pivotal role in fortifying milk and dairy products with essential vitamins and minerals, making them more nutritious and supportive of global health initiatives? 

FRDC chemists help to ensure the quality and marketability of all our products by understanding how to consistently integrate essential vitamins and minerals in a stable fashion, especially for new ingredients and in novel products, and provide internationally recognized test methods to support customer needs and labelling claims.  

Hunter Chen, Senior Research Technologist 

Could you share a specific project or innovation that highlights the role of chemistry in improving the nutritional content of dairy products? 

At FRDC, we take great pride in leading the charge in leveraging the power of chemistry to enrich the nutritional content of dairy products.

Traditionally, high-protein nutritional sports beverages rely on various chemical additives (e.g., gums, stabilising salts) to ensure their stability on supermarket shelves. These additives can sound overly chemical, often evoking negative perceptions in consumers' minds, suggesting the product may be artificial. 

We've leveraged the chemistry of dairy proteins to make our nutritional product significantly more natural, healthier, and cleaner. More Importantly, this approach eliminates concerns related to 'chemical' additives and preservatives, perfectly catering to consumers' growing demand for transparent and uncomplicated products.  

John Clements, Associate Research Scientist

In terms of food safety, how does chemistry play a vital role in ensuring the quality and safety of dairy products? 

Chemicals make up the world around us and how they behave is at the core of chemistry. In dairy systems, chemistry determines product flavour, stability, health benefits, and supports their manufacture.  

Confidence in Food Safety comes from knowing that a process is under control; chemical testing provides data driven support and verification that any chemical risks are being managed, to meet consumer expectations, international standards, and regulations.  

Paul Plieger, Analytical Science Manager 

How does your background (area of work) in chemistry contribute to the goal of making the world a better place through your work at FRDC?

Good nutritional food is of upmost importance to a healthy mind and body. At the heart of all food is chemistry! The various fats, vitamins, carbohydrates and proteins are all chemical molecules of various sizes and functions. As manager of the Analytical Sciences team, I support the team to achieve the dual goal of measuring the chemical properties of new innovative nutrition and health solutions under development at FRDCand also to search out new chemical compounds that have recognisable health benefits. 

Sheelagh Hewitt, Principal Research Scientist

The chemistry of milk is a fascinating topic. Could you provide an overview of how understanding milk's chemistry leads to the development of better dairy products for consumers' health? 

Understanding the chemistry of the two major proteins in milk – casein and whey – has led to technologies to isolate and concentrate them from milk to provide a wide range of dairy protein ingredients. Protein is an essential dietary component and milk is an excellent source of high quality protein. These protein ingredients - caseinates, total milk proteins, milk protein concentrates, whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates – are used in a wide variety of nutritional beverages and foods such as infant formula, yoghurt, sports and medical beverages, protein bars, and processed cheese.     

Timothy Ponrathnam, Senior Packaging Research Technologist 

The chemistry behind sustainable packaging is intriguing. How does it help reduce the environmental impact of dairy products, and what innovative solutions have you worked on in this area? 

At Fonterra, we understand that packaging plays a pivotal role in ensuring the safe delivery of our products to consumers. We aim to enhance the properties of existing materials, including mechanical, thermal, and barrier characteristics, ultimately crafting materials that remain recyclable at the end of their life while continuing to safeguard our products throughout their intended shelf life. 

I’m currently working on a couple of key packaging innovation programs that aim to address the shortfalls on the existing packages on end of life.