It should come as no surprise that women have been shaping food science for centuries. From food-product packaging to animal handling to plant genetics, women have had a hand in many innovations that have helped make today’s food system vast, safe, and healthy. March is Women’s History Month, and this year we’re highlighting two spectacular women in food science—one who revolutionized frozen food safety and another who harnessed plant science to impact the health of millions.
Dr. Mary Engle Pennington
Sometimes referred to as the “Ice Woman,” Dr. Mary Engle Pennington played a pivotal role in refrigerated and frozen food safety in the early 20th century. Born in 1872, Dr. Pennington was refused a bachelor’s degree by the University of Pennsylvania in 1892 because of her gender. However, she persisted and received a certificate of proficiency in chemistry and then continued her studies to garner her doctorate in chemistry at the university in 1895.
Following the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, Dr. Pennington became the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) first woman lab chief, heading up the Bureau of Chemistry’s Food Research Lab. During her time at the FDA, Pennington revolutionized cold food storage, discovering that fresh foods that are consistently kept at a low temperature last longer than those that go through multiple temperature fluctuations. This finding was particularly important for the transportation of food products like cheese, milk, and eggs; if these foods were kept at a consistent temperature from starting location to their final destination, their bacteria levels stayed low and they were less likely to spoil. Pennington’s discovery led to the development of refrigerated transport as a means to maintain low temperatures over long distances, as well as an upgrade to home refrigeration, which began to use technology similar to that of refrigerated boxcars. Temperature-controlled transportation is a major factor in maintaining freezing temperatures over long periods of time, ensuring frozen foods do not spoil when moving from coast to coast.
Thanks to Dr. Pennington’s research with the FDA and beyond, our fresh foods can now last much longer. One of the top food-handling tips is to keep food at a safe temperature, particularly for items like meat, dairy, eggs, and cut fruits and vegetables, which all should be stored either below 40° Fahrenheit or frozen. Foods that can be frozen are able to last much longer than fresh or refrigerated foods—and can be just as nutritious.
Dr. Maria Andrade
Over 100 years later, Dr. Maria Andrade made a name for herself in the food and plant science world with her research and development of nine drought-tolerant crops. Dr. Andrade grew up on the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa and studied plant genetics and plant breeding in the United States. Upon growing more interested in biofortification and learning of nutrient deficiencies and food insecurity on the African continent, Dr. Andrade headed back to Africa to research new crops. Along with Dr. Robert Mwanga and Dr. Jan Low, she won the World Food Prize in 2016 for her work on orange-fleshed sweet potato. The benefits of this sweet potato variety are two-fold—it can grow with limited water (ideal for the hot, arid environment of sub-Saharan Africa), and it is biofortified with vitamin A, which has aided in reducing vitamin A deficiency in the same region. Dr. Andrade’s work ties together agriculture, bioengineering, and nutrition, impacting the global food system in multiple ways. Particularly for children with vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to night blindness as well as full blindness and even potential mortality, Dr. Andrade’s work has made a groundbreaking difference.
More generally, drought-tolerant crops can feed more people and use fewer resources, which is especially helpful in drought-prone areas like sub-Saharan Africa and southern California. Drought-tolerant corn, in particular, thrives in the United States during dry seasons. Crops that can survive with less water than their traditional counterparts are particularly important as climate change causes droughts to become longer and more frequent. Dr. Andrade’s research into drought-tolerant crops, along with continued research in this area, is essential to maintaining the worldwide food supply and aiding in reducing nutrient deficiencies.
A round of applause for women food scientists!
Women scientists have undoubtedly changed our food system for the better, and the achievements of Dr. Pennington and Dr. Andrade are just a few highlights in a long history of women innovators who have improved food safety, maximized worldwide health and well-being, and supported environmental sustainability. This Women’s History Month, we’re thankful for the women food scientists who have worked to promote healthier, stronger, and safer food systems for us all.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.