UP nutrition and food security prof appointed to high-level UN panel

Posted on May 17, 2024

When Professor Hettie Schönfeldt set off for university to study what was then a BSc in Home Economics and Dietetics, most people didn’t have a clue what she was actually studying. Food and nutrition wasn’t the popular science it is today.

But she followed her interest in researching what makes up the food people eat and how it affects them.

“It’s not what’s on the label of the food but what’s really inside it,” she says, recalling the 270 animal carcasses dissected during her PhD studies.

Today, Prof Schönfeldt is not only among the top in her field in South Africa, but also enjoys considerable international recognition for her research in nutrition and food composition. It’s not just her National Research Foundation (NRF) B3 rating that credits the international reputation of the impact and quality of her research – since July 2018, Prof Schönfeldt has been the NRF-SARChl Chair for Nutrition and Food Security based at the University of Pretoria (UP).

And she was recently appointed as the only South African on the 15-member High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, which is the United Nations (UN) body that gives scientific advice to the Committee on World Food Security. Coincidentally, the committee is chaired by a South African, Nosipho Nausca-Jean Jezile, the country’s ambassador to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which is responsible for international efforts to defeat hunger.

Prof Schönfeldt is exhilarated to be part of such a distinguished panel. They have had two meetings already: an orientation meeting in Rome at the end of November and more recently, one in Istanbul.

“The panel consists of like-minded people,” she says. “We are from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, some academics. Some come from research institutions, others from the private or public sector. But we all have one passion and that is food security and nutrition. We love working together because we are speaking the same language.

“And it gives clout to the university because people have become aware of the University of Pretoria. Until now, no one on the panel knew anyone from South Africa. They said, ‘Oh, we've heard about Cape Town, but we don’t know where Pretoria is.’”

This is not Prof Schönfeldt’s first involvement with a UN organisation.

“I have reviewed the FAO’s work in nutrition worldwide,” she says of her role as part of the evaluation team, encouraging the link between nutrition and agriculture.

As the scientific advisor to AFROFOODS, a network of organisations for composition data in African countries, she is a member of the taskforce of the International Network of Food Data Systems known as INFOODS, which operates under the auspices of the FAO. 

Prof Schönfeldt was also recently appointed as a director of the European Food Information Resource consortium, which harmonises electronic datasets such as hers on food composition. In a project on dark green leafy vegetables, she determined that pumpkin leaves had five times more iron than spinach, “which emphasises the importance of local nutrient composition data”, she says.

Despite her high-profile research and PhD, Prof Schönfeldt didn’t enter academia full-time until 2018. For nearly 19 years, she worked at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) – when it was still the Department of Agriculture’s research leg – where she was its first nutritionist.

“I loved my work at the ARC,” she recalls. “I started the sensory laboratory. We had a panel that came in every day and tasted the food and described it. When we worked on meat, it was on the tenderness, the difference in flavours and the juiciness. I taught myself about it because at that stage, the science did not exist in South Africa. My colleague would assist me with mixing very low volumes of sugar, salt and tartaric acid, and then we measured at what level people could actually taste those basic solutions.”

She even did physical tests on crocodile, hippo and giraffe meat to determine the tenderness and, in the case of crocodile meat, its nutrient composition. When the lab became a service laboratory, they worked on a plethora of products such as crisps for competing companies, as well as alcoholic fruit-flavoured spritzers.

For nine of the years she was at the ARC, Prof Schönfeldt was an extraordinary (part-time) professor in the Department of Animal and Wildlife Sciences in UP’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, where she spent one day a week in her office on campus.

“The work just exploded at both sides,” she says. “And with four children all needing attention I said, ‘I can't do this anymore; maybe it will be easier if I do only one job, just teaching.”

She then took up a full-time post as a senior lecturer in the Department of Consumer Sciences, where she updated the courses “because it was the still the same content we had been taught”. After eight months, however, she resigned because she realised the aspect of academia she likes best is research. Yet she continued to supervise students.

“Most students included some part of food composition in their research, so we did the vitamin A content of fortified maize meal and the nutrient composition of South African dairy and meat – lamb, mutton and chicken,” she says.

Her own research on meat, or what she prefers to label “animal protein”, includes the nutrient content of processed meats and imitation meats. This is part of her work in UP’s Department of Animal Science. Her multifaceted positions at UP include being an honorary extraordinary lecturer in the School of Health Systems and Public Health.

Little stays static in Prof Schönfeldt’s life. She has just been made head of UP’s hub on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, Zero Hunger, and will be meeting similar groupings in Greece later this year to “discuss what lessons can be learnt from other higher education institutions about how they tackle the SDG they are responsible for”.

And she was honoured with yet another award in March, this time as a pioneering woman in agriculture at the Women’s Insight Deliberation Competition.

If there is one absolute constant in her life, it’s the way she cooks when she is not experimenting.

“My husband always jokes with me, because if I follow a recipe, it’s exactly to the letter. We've taught the students what happens if you change the ingredients,” says Prof Schönfeldt, now a lifelong expert in food composition.

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