Elizabeth Roark, MPH, RD
PRINCIPAL NUTRITION SCIENTIST
for something nutrishus
Elizabeth has been following and supporting the series for a while now. We both agreed that her work in the food industry makes her an important interview in this series, especially since there's a lot of misinformation and judgement around those types of positions. Dietitians are important in those non-traditional roles as you'll see in terms of Elizabeth's daily/weekly tasks and expert contributions. She works on a large scale (globally) as well as on numerous phases of product development and education/communication.
Why did you become an RD?
Well, I’m another one of those dietitians who didn’t initially start out wanting to be an RD. I was actually a math major as an incoming freshman at UCLA. After about a year, I switched to Spanish literature! I liked numbers, just not that much. My objective at that time was to become fluent in another language and eventually enter an MBA program. I had my eye on the international/global area of business management.
Long story short, after obtaining a BA from UCLA, I worked for a few global corporations and found the business management side of things just wasn’t for me. Plus, I had since developed a love for running and all things food/nutrition. I returned to school to explore this passion and was hooked after Nutrition 101.
What area of dietetics do you work in?
It’s funny how things come full circle sometimes. Today, I am a Principal Nutrition Scientist at a large global food manufacturing company. I spend a great deal of time collaborating with my global nutrition science colleagues, which not only allows me to share and receive nutrition knowledge across many borders, but also satisfies my interest in working with people from different cultures and backgrounds. Although my Spanish skills are definitely not what they used to be, I have many global colleagues with which to practice.
How would you explain what you do?
Great question! My days are never the same as there are always new products being developed, new regulations, new science, new educational needs, and new consumer trends. One key area of responsibility is helping to ensure we meet PepsiCo’s portfolio transformation goals when it comes to product development and product reformulation. This means I’m responsible for contributing to the creation of global population-specific nutrition criteria, as well as ensuring our new products meet public health sensitive nutrient limits for things like sodium and saturated fat and incorporate meaningful amounts of positive nutrition (e.g. whole grains, legumes, etc.) when it makes sense for the product.
Another aspect of my role involves internal and external nutrition communications. This can involve providing nutrition education to our employees, working collaboratively with retail dietitians to educate consumers, managing social media messaging, as well as sharing our portfolio transformation history and progress at relevant conferences.
What are your “typical” daily/weekly tasks?
This can certainly vary but in general a typical day or week can involve participating in cross-functional innovation taskforce meetings for the development of new snack products, representing the U.S. on global Nutrition Science taskforces to discuss the creation of population and/or category specific nutrition criteria (e.g. snacks, women, dairy, etc.), working internally and externally to review/update/create new food regulations and policy, collaborating with my regulatory and legal colleagues on scientifically substantiated claim language, discussing in-store activation details with our retail RD partners, and contributing to just about any project that happens to require nutrition expertise.
What has been your career path?
As I previously mentioned, becoming an RD wasn’t my initial career goal. I definitely took the long way to become an RD! Oddly enough, I may have also taken the long way when it came to deciding on which specific area of nutrition I wanted to pursue.
I began working toward an MS in nutrition at New York University, which obviously included taking all the sciences I did not take as an undergraduate. At this time I was also working as a Dietetic Technician at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Because of this experience, I decided clinical nutrition wasn’t my passion. Although a fantastic and incredibly important RD area of expertise, I was more interested in the preventative nutrition aspect of dietetics versus working with people who were already ill. So, I switched gears and headed back to California to enter the UCLA School of Public Health where I could focus more on the role of nutrition in disease prevention. After receiving my MPH degree, I completed my dietetic internship at UCLA/Olive View Medical Center.
My entry into global food manufacturing was as a Scientific and Regulatory Affairs associate. This role involved labeling, scientific substantiation for claims, as well as the external influencing of regulations and food policy. I was pleasantly surprised how impactful I could be in terms of shaping what type of products landed on store shelves, how nutrition was communicated on pack, as well as how food regulations were updated and implemented. I happily stayed in this role for 12 years.
Work relocation for my husband led me to change jobs. I landed at another global food manufacturing company, but this time, I was focusing more on the global aspect of regulatory compliance, which I really enjoyed. While I had certainly been leveraging my nutrition background as a regulatory expert, I decided I wanted to see what I could do with a role that was focused primarily on nutrition. This decision led me to my current role which involves nutrition education/communication and the setting/application of nutrition criteria for Frito-Lay/PepsiCo.
What advanced education or special training do you have?
I have a graduate degree in public health nutrition – MPH
In an ideal world, what does the industry look like 5 years from now?
Wow, I’d like to see an RD head a large global food manufacturing company, such as an MBA, RD? While many global food manufacturing companies have a corporate culture that values nutrition, health and wellness, and are making positive advances toward creating balance and increased nutrient density, I think an RD in a CEO role could add a really unique and interesting perspective to a company.
We’ll have to wait and see if this becomes a reality. In the meantime, I’d like to see continued growth in the number of companies bringing on the expertise of an RD. As the true nutrition experts, we have a very important role to play when it comes to educating both employees and consumers, but also helping to ensure products align with dietary guidelines and are eaten in portions that allow for balance and moderation.
What misinformation about RDs would you like to clear up? What are challenges you encounter as a RD?
Thanks for asking. I totally agree there is a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to RDs working for food companies, both within the RD community as well as out of it. However, it’s important to note that these RDs can definitely help ensure movement toward positive change. It can sometimes be challenging to gain complete alignment on why a product should be lower in a particular nutrient and/or higher in another, but I think this is when our nutrition education skills are best utilized. Having the RD sit at the table and be intimately involved in the product development process is how we add value and positively impact the foods that ultimately end up on store shelves.
At Frito-Lay we have nutritional targets that were created with input from RDs and align with science. Further, we have a corporate culture that is receptive to the nutrition expertise of the RD. I don’t think this is unique to Frito-Lay but rather an industry-wide movement as many food companies understand the value of having RDs work within. This is good news for everyone!
More about Elizabeth
LinkedIn: Elizabeth Roark, MPH, RD