NAS Featured scientist - Prof Hettie Schönfeldt (Professor in Nutrition and DSI/NRF/NDP SARChI Chair in Nutrition and Food Security.
She is also Co-Director of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Food Systems led by the University of Pretoria (UP), in collaboration with the University of Ghana, Legon and the University of Nairobi).
Q: Why did you choose to study Nutrition?
A: As food is an integral part of our daily lives and determines our nutritional status, it provides opportunities for finding practical solutions for society to improve their health and well-being. I graduated with a BSc Food and Nutrition degree. I had the choice to follow a clinical career as a dietitian or to pursue a research career where I could contribute at a population level.
Q: Why is Nutrition important?
A: Nutrition (and food) is crucially important to the economy. It enhances children's learning capacity and increases their potential to play an important role in the workforce later in their lives. Eleven of the seventeen underlying causes of premature mortality and morbidity are directly related to malnutrition, manifested in under- and over-nutrition. Malnutrition contributes to a vicious cycle of poor health and depressed productivity, impaired ability to concentrate and learn, trapping families in poverty and eroding economic security. Education on important dietary choices and better Nutrition through diverse diets decrease ill health and improve the ability to work and earn a sustainable livelihood.
Q: Highlights of your career so far?
A: I was invited to serve as the Chief Rapporteur of the FAO/World Health Organisation Expert Working Group on Protein Requirements for Human Health held in Auckland, New Zealand. Furthermore, I performed a descriptive review on the nutrition sensitivity of the food and agricultural policies in South Africa for the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition, which was used to inform the International Conference on Nutrition in November 2014 and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2015, I was the co-leader of the University of Pretoria's team appointed by the South African Presidency to support developing a multisector comprehensive National Food and Nutrition Security Policy and Implementation Plan. In addition, I was tasked in 2020 by the Presidency to perform a Case Study on the Gauteng City Region's efforts to combat the impact of COVID-19, called 'A Provincial Deep Dive on Response to Food Security'. In 2019 I received the distinguished Nevin Scrimshaw award https://www.fao.org/infoods/infoods/infoods-awards/en/ at the 13th International Food Data Conference held in Lisbon, Portugal.
Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research.
A: The contribution of indigenous foods to farmers' livelihoods and family nutrition is often neither documented in science nor acknowledged in poverty reduction strategies. In order to promote and expand the utilisation of these animal- and plant foods, knowledge of their nutritional composition is essential. An example which we recently studied is Aponogeton Distachyos. It is an aquatic flowering plant endemic and native to the Western Cape (South Africa), commonly referred to as Waterblommetjies. From a data availability perspective, there is a significant need for regularly updated, nationally representative and socio-economically disaggregated detailed food intake data, food composition data, as well as raw-to-cooked conversion factors for South Africa specifically – to facilitate accurate analyses which will form the basis for food consumption, nutrition analyses and policymaking. Our study of complementary feeding practices in South Africa showed that poor infant feeding practices still prevail: food and liquids are introduced too early, there is poor dietary diversity, and little use of animal source foods.
Q: Describe a day in the life of Prof Schönfeldt.
A: My days are unpredictable and challenging. Therefore flexibility is a requirement to respond in a way that will make a significant contribution to current knowledge. I am always on a new steep learning curve (mostly more than one) and stretching my mental muscles, which I find stimulating. On the same day, I can oversee the development of new recipes for the School Nutrition Programme and moderate a session on food policy for an African-wide network. I am also a supportive wife and mother to four children and a recently born grandchild.
Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: A good scientist should have a natural curiosity to move the current borders of knowledge with supporting science-based evidence. You should have a vision of what you want to accomplish and set your goal posts to reach it independently in the face of adversary.
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: Sharing is caring. This philosophy is reflected in sharing of my knowledge with students and colleagues alike. It has more than awarded me by the strong and supportive networks I have built over time.