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Cereal Foods World, Vol. 64, No. 5
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1094/CFW-64-5-0060
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Interview with Wajira S. Ratnayake

© 2019 AACC International, Inc.


In this interview, AACCI — Cereals & Grains Association Member Wajira S. Ratnayake discusses his work in cereal- and grain-related ingredient and product research and his many volunteer activities with the association. He also discusses the challenges and opportunities for cereal scientists and the food industry that are presented by the complex global food system, the rapid pace of information flow, and the need to adapt to new trends.

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Q: What is your current position and what type of work do you do?

A: Currently, I work as a research manager on the Global Innovation and Strategy Team at Ingredion Inc. I manage research projects and scientists working on food ingredient development.

Q: When and how did you first decide you wanted to work in cereal grain science?

A: I decided to pursue further education and a career in this field after graduating from Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, in 2000. My M.S. degree research was on starch chemistry. The experience and knowledge I gained made me interested in staying close to cereal- and grain-related research. Later, I joined the Cereal Science research group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study toward my Ph.D. degree.

Q: How have you been involved with the AACCI — Cereals & Grains Association? How has your involvement with the association enriched your career?

A: First, I became a student member in 2002 with guidance from my research advisor. Since then, I have been closely involved in AACCI activities. As a student, I served as the Student Division secretary in 2004–2005. I also engaged in various student competitions and received the 2005 Charles Becker Endowment Graduate Fellowship and the 2005 Best Student Research Paper Award (sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association).

After graduation in 2006, I became an AACCI professional member and an active member of the Carbohydrate Division. I continued to be involved in AACCI activities—organizing and/or moderating several technical sessions at annual meetings, serving as a coordinator and judge for the Best Student Research Poster Award (sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association), serving as a student mentor, etc. Currently, I am serving as the secretary-treasurer of the Carbohydrate Division. I led efforts to create a new Best Student Research Paper Award, sponsored by ADM, Cargill, Ingredion, and Tate & Lyle, for the Carbohydrate Division, which will be awarded starting in 2019.

I have published both my own and, subsequently, my group’s (at University of Nebraska-Lincoln) research in Cereal Chemistry.

My involvement in AACCI has been critical for my career in cereal and grain science. Opportunities to connect and network with other professionals from both academia and industry is very important. Getting to know “who does what” and learning from their experience and expertise, either through conversations or by attending meeting events, has been a huge help. AACCI members are particularly willing to support students and young scientists who are in their early career, as I have experienced.

Q: In 2019, Cereal Foods World (CFW) is focusing on the global food system (GFS). Please offer your perspective on how global societal and technology trends are affecting cereal science and the cereal grain industry overall. How will cereal scientists need to adapt to these global trends?

A: The rapid developments and advances in both information technology and automation will have an impact not only on the cereal grain industry, but also on the entire food industry. Unlike the past, scientific and research information is now readily available to anyone who seeks it, regardless of where they live. People are using such information to make individual decisions on what to purchase and consume. The industry needs to adapt to the fast pace of changing consumer behavior that leads to demand (or lack thereof). Transparency concerning what is in a product and how it is made are becoming key factors governing consumer attitudes toward food products. In addition, sustainability and the environmental impact of the process are becoming as important as the quality and nutritional value of a product. These are key factors contributing to increasing interest in and demand for plant-based ingredients and products.

As a recent CFW Editorial highlighted, GFS is very complex. Differences in regulatory requirements and analytical standards in different regions of the world add to this complexity. The fast pace of information flow, particularly the availability of worldwide access to the latest research information, makes this a very dynamic complex system and creates serious challenges for the food industry. Organizations like AACCI have a key role to play in addressing these challenges.

Cereal science has been evolving gradually over the past 100 years or so, primarily around conventional grain processing and utilization of flours and fractions. Cereal scientists could use the much improved technological advances available today to make cereal and grain industry operations more efficient. A key element of this would be the ability to foresee critical future needs based on the current status of the industry. Trends we see today are based on research someone carried out for the past few years with an accurate view of the future. Reluctance to improve conventional processes or attempting to follow the trends we see today will not successfully accomplish the goal of meeting future food industry needs. Collaborating with scientists and experts from other areas will be important to correctly utilize the technological and other resources that will be available in the future so that cereal scientists will not be left behind in the rapidly improving, very dynamic, modern food industry.

Q: This issue of CFW explores cereal foods (grains and pulses in many product forms) in the context of the GFS. Do you have any perspectives on the challenges and opportunities associated with the global expansion of the food chain and the dynamics of the global food trade?

A: Evolving regulatory requirements in various regions of the world are a challenge for the industry. Developing regulatory standards for newly introduced ingredients and products to meet the needs of today’s dynamic industry is not easily accomplished.

The lack of harmonized analytical methods worldwide is another key challenge for the industry. Different analytical methods used in different regions of the world to measure a given product quality or safety parameter can lead to variable results and create confusion. This recently has been the case for protein and fiber ingredients.

Opportunities can primarily be grouped into two categories: 1) addressing the challenges outlined above; and 2) finding sustainable solutions for evolving consumer needs. Niche products will always have a market, as has been the case historically. Such products, however, will not be of much help in meeting the basic needs of the global market, such as protein, fiber, and even calories in certain regions.

Added functionalities, whether physical or nutritional, in conventional food ingredients (e.g., starch and flour) are another area of increasing demand. Ingredients and products made without chemical processes, yet providing the same benefits and functionalities as their conventional counterparts, are in high demand as well.

In general, it is important to differentiate between a fad that creates a short-lived excitement and a trend that leads to a long-term transformation in the market in developing economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable products and solutions.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I like working in the food industry and being involved in cereal- and grain-related ingredient and product research. As we know, the “cereals and grains” field has expanded considerably in the recent past, creating new opportunities for applied research. Working at Ingredion Inc. gives me opportunities to stay very close to the latest research advances. Currently, my team is responsible for evaluating new technologies and precommercial-stage research advances for ingredient development. In today’s dynamic market environment, this is an area of paramount importance for the industry. I wish to continue to be involved in this area of applied research and expand my contributions to the cereals and grains industry, while enjoying working at Ingredion Inc.