Student Perspective: Navigating the Food Industry as an RD

Student Perspective: Navigating the Food Industry as an RD

November 20, 2013
Career Development

Michelle Leonetti
Senior Nutrition and Dietetics Student, Cornell University
Cornell Nutrition Health and Nutrition Society

When I first started school, I only had a vague idea of what the food industry encompassed. Popular culture had taught me that it was making children obese and killing America one grain of salt at a time. For the first half of my education, I went on with this idea in the back of my head, but never really gave the food industry much thought. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to intern with a major food manufacturer that I was able to investigate these claims first hand.

I enthusiastically started my first day ready to save humanity, armed with whole grains in one hand and fiber in the other. Little did I know, that nutrition was not necessarily the company’s first priority. This is when I learned some very valuable lessons about the intersection of business and nutrition:

  • Food Production is Complicated: The logistics involved in getting a product from farm to supermarket are extremely complicated. This makes it impractical and sometimes impossible to make seemingly simple product modifications like increasing whole grains, or decreasing sodium.
  • Trade-offs are inevitable: It is virtually impossible produce a perfect product that is simultaneously environmentally sustainable, nutritionally balanced, and cost effective, without certain tradeoffs. Oftentimes nutrition can be pushed to the end of the priority list in favor of other factors.  
  • Small victories mean the most: Changing an entire product portfolio to whole grain over night may not be feasible, but having one product increase to 50% whole grain over the span of a few years is a more realistic goal.
  • Change happens from the bottom up: Building nutrition awareness throughout cross-functional teams from procurement to product development to marketing is the best way to create sustainable change. By spreading the message about nutrition, the seed for future change is planted, even if it doesn’t happen right away.  

Taking these all into consideration, I learned the importance of creativity and enthusiasm in approaching nutrition in a business setting. It is a unique opportunity to apply a strong nutritional science background along with cross-functional areas including finance, communication, marketing and food science. This multidisciplinary approach is what drew me in and triggered my passion for consumer and retail nutrition. It is easy to get discouraged in this setting, but it is that much more fulfilling when you are able to impact the nutrition of products that reach millions of consumers on a daily basis. Like any industry, the business of food isn’t perfect, but I am so excited to be a part of making it better one product at a time.