Inspired by Hippocrates’ saying, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”, Dr Nomusa Dlamini, herself a food fundi, is quick to emphasise that her field of expertise, food science, has little to do with culinary conquests and everything to do with understanding the makeup of food from a nutritional, technological and safety perspective.
CSIR principal researcher Dr Nomusa Dlamini understands that to get to a safe, nutritious food product, one has to understand the chemical changes that food undergoes during cooking. “An example is the development of flavours as you fry a piece of meat or the structural changes that enable digestion, as well as the absorption of important nutrients and how these are assimilated into the body through various biochemical pathways,” she says.
Her research in this field, she says, is important because it does not only lead to products that bolster healthy living, but also to job creation through cultivation and processing opportunities, and poverty alleviation from the commercial activities that have a ripple effect on employment and raising people’s income brackets. The research also encourages the conservation of biodiversity and innovation.
At university, her desire to help humankind led her to study biochemistry, which allowed her to branch into food sciences and nutrition. “Considering that food intake affects our wellbeing, I felt I could make a real contribution, especially as the aspect of food safety is still overlooked, but is key to achieving good health and food security, not to mention its importance in overall human development,” she adds.
Leveraging what nature has to offer Dlamini’s current research focuses on product and process development of nutritious food products and nutraceuticals. Her research also contributes to the country’s Bio-economy Strategy that aims to address issues of job creation, poverty alleviation, and reducing malnutrition. “I work with small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), communities and industry in trying to address the question of how to effectively use indigenous biodiversity, and creating value-added products that have health benefits.”
She elaborates, “I explore how indigenous edible plants that show health benefits can be formulated into innovative products. These plants are analysed for basic nutrient content, and extracts are prepared so that their chemical profile can be determined. For this aspect, I work with chemists who have the analytical tools and high-end equipment. I also work with botanists to confirm the identity of the plants. Usually, the edible plant will be formulated to a nutritious food product or used as an ingredient. However, in the case of health benefits, extracts are prepared to concentrate those components that are beneficial.”
Illustrating the multidisciplinary nature of her work, Dlamini explains that once the beneficiation of extracts reach pilot scale, her team works with chemical engineers and process engineers to optimise the process of extraction. “In all those cases, the products must be safe for the consumer and, thus, we do safety studies, including toxicity and microbial safety, for which microbiology and pharmacology are other important disciplines.”
Dlamini also helps SMMEs with product and process development. “They might have an idea and we help bring it to life, using our skills in product development and formulation, which include stability and safety tests.” Once the development is complete, the technology is transferred and the SMME either receives training to be able to produce the product or is enabled to engage a contract manufacturer to help with production.
Current position: CSIR principal researcher
Career type: Food scientist
Current research interest: Addressing the issue of food safety along the food value chain, starting from primary production and processing, up to the food reaching the consumer (farm to fork)
Education: PhD (Food Science and Technology), Texas A&M University, United States of America, 2007