Hamed Faridi: A Groundbreaking Platform for Improving Public Health

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Hamed Faridi.

Dr. Hamed Faridi heads a global team of 450+ scientists and flavorists responsible for thought leadership, scientific research, product development, Health & Wellness, and sustainability to support the global businesses of the world’s largest flavor company — McCormick and Company, Inc. Dr. Faridi is the voice of science for McCormick & Company. Under his leadership, McCormick’s R&D program has been transformed and is rated by investors and global customers as one of the most innovative in the industry. Morningstar, a respected leader in investment research, wrote, “Under Hamed Faridi, McCormick’s research labs have become the best in the industry, in our opinion.” Bear Stearns reported “For McCormick, perhaps the most sustainable growth driver beyond even acquisition and marketing is R&D”. His science-based approach to “Flavorful Healthy Eating” is recognized as a groundbreaking platform for improving public health. His vision led to the formation of the McCormick Science Institute (MSI) in 2006 as a research-driven organization to advance scientific understanding of the potential health benefits of culinary spices and herbs. This research prompted a close partnership with USDA to help in implementation of the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

He has published six books and dozens of scientific articles in food science and technology and has been a guest lecturer at conferences and research institutions in 22 countries. He has also served on several boards of professional and trade associations in the U.S. and Europe. He was elected and served as president of the American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACCI) and the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA). He currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Maryland University of Integrative Health and chairs the Compensation Committee.

In addition, he has served on Advisory Councils of food science departments for four major universities. He was honored as a Fellow by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in 2010 and the AACCI in 2011. He is the recipient of Kansas State University 2013 Outstanding Alumni Award. In 2015, he received the Flavor Industry’s most coveted Richard L. Hall Distinguished Service Award for “his significant and lasting contributions to the flavor industry”. He received the 2016 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, given to “Americans in recognition for accomplishments in their field and inspired service to the nation. On September of 2017 he received the Ohio State University’s Harris Award for his lifetime of dedication to excellence in food science. On November 2017, Dr. Faridi received the Upwardly Global 2017 Outstanding Leadership Award that recognizes individuals who have advanced the promise of an interdependent world and global economy by championing immigrants and refugees.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

When asked, I always introduce myself by three words starting with the letter “L”: Loving, Learning and Legacy. I call them my three “Ls” and together they serve as my guiding light and north star. Loving is the platform I have built my personal as well as my professional life on. Learning speaks to my insatiable appetite for learning. Legacy gives meaning to my being and a long-term view on everything I do.

I was born in the city of Arak about 200 miles southwest of Tehran, the sixth of my parents seven children. We moved to Tehran when I was one year old to provide my older siblings access to better schools, but we always spent our summers in Arak. My father was passionate about gardening which I have fortunately inherited. Our house in Arak was a showplace for flowers, fruit trees, grape wines, and especially magnificent weeping willows and aspens. Even after many decades, I still long for the house of my childhood in Arak.

I come from an extremely loving and caring family and my childhood was a very happy one. My family’s goodness and generosity instilled in me the virtues of selflessness, charity, and service to others. My father, Alaeddin Farid Araki, was a math genius, a global thinker and a member of Parliament or Majles. He always encouraged me to set my sights on higher aspirations and helped me pursue my dreams of getting an American education. My mother, Ejlal Rafi, a native of Rasht, was a daughter of a successful businessman and spent most of her childhood years in Vienna, Austria. She was a saint and used to tell her children that when you look at a fruit tree, the branch with the most plentiful fruit has his head down due to the weight of the fruit. Her teaching of humility has been a great guiding post in my life.

I attended Mehran elementary and Alborz high school founded by the American Jesuit missionary, Dr. Samuel Jordan. During my years at Alborz, in the 10th grade, scholastically I became first among my classmates and received an award from then Education Minister Dr. Parviz Natel Khanlari, a book on Medicinal Plants of Iran. This helped me develop a great passion for food and nutrition (and spices and herbs) that would determine the course of my life and destiny. After graduating from Pahlavi University in Shiraz, I came to the United States to attend graduate school, received my PhD from Kansas State University in 1975, and went back to Iran eager to serve my country in the field of food science and nutrition.

At the time, Iran was facing tremendous nutrition-related challenges in public health. I started my career at Farah Pahlavi University (where I met my future wife) and then moved to the Iran Institute for Nutrition & Food Technology, where I was promoted to department chair. The Institute embarked on three programs to develop a science-based approach to alleviate some of the root causes of the nutrition deficiencies plaguing the country. The first program addressed the nutritional consequences of high bread consumption particularly prevalent in rural areas where bread constituted more than 80% of villagers’ total caloric intake, and was suspected of causing micronutrient deficiency (especially zinc and iron) that delayed physical and mental growth in children. The second program addressed the food safety of fish harvested from the Persian Gulf, with a focus on trace metal contamination resulting from oil tanker traffic. For the third program, I was an investigator for a study sponsored by United Nations University called “Post-Harvest Losses of Agricultural Products in Iran.” Our preliminary research found average national food losses estimated at 40–50% from harvest to table. During this period, I was also a volunteer nutritionist for the Farah Pahlavi Charity Foundation, involved in setting dietary plans and inspecting food preparation facilities serving orphanages throughout the city of Tehran.

Progress for all these programs came to a halt due the political turmoil that erupted in Iran in 1979. Married for only two months, my wife and I moved back for good to the US in July of 1979, and I was fortunate that Washington State University offered me a faculty position. In 1983, I accepted a position at Nabisco Brands Inc., then the second largest US-based food company. My wife and I moved to New Jersey where I was promoted to the executive rank in R&D. In 1997, I joined McCormick & Company, Inc., the largest flavor company in the world. Despite the whirlwind pace of my career and the demands of my academic pursuits, I was able to pursue my life’s dream to make a positive lasting impact on public health.

Since the 1990s, health and wellness has become one of the most significant consumer trends in North America and Europe. I became convinced the opportunity existed to develop a nutrition platform based on “Flavorful Healthy Eating” powered by natural wonders of culinary spices and herbs that could address some of the critical health and wellness issues plaguing the developed world. As an example, in recent decades, obesity, and its related conditions, has become a serious issue facing our civilization. Despite federal, state, and medical community efforts, this growing epidemic has remained an insurmountable challenge. Easy access to calorie-dense foods and overconsumption of salt, fat, and sugar are contributors to the problem and to the public health crisis obesity is creating. As I considered today’s health crisis, I became convinced we could have an impact on public health by changing modern dietary practices using flavorful herbs and spices to replace portions of the salt, fat and sugar so prevalent in our food today. Although this theory was supported by empirical and observational data, there was little modern scientific literature and no platform with which to communicate the concept to policymakers to effect policy change. It was my destiny to develop the scientific foundation for supporting public policy changes aimed at tackling the intractable challenge of improving eating habits and nutrition. I believe that small steps by individuals and organizations can make a big difference, and that better universal health, including cures for obesity and metabolic diseases, can and must start in each of our home kitchens.

To achieve my objective, I needed multi-year, multi-million-dollar funding for rigorous clinical trials conducted by the world’s leading researchers. To my knowledge, no food company had ever funded research for public health purposes on such a scale. Fortunately, McCormick’s insightful leadership recognized the value of the mission and gave me the green light. In 2006, the McCormick Science Institute (www.mccrmickscienceinstitute.org) was established as an independent research-driven organization led by a world-renowned nutritionist and a blue-ribbon Scientific Advisory Council. Since its inception, MSI has funded more than 40 clinical trials by leading independent researchers in North America and Europe who are developing the primary scientific evidence to link spices, herbs and improved nutrition. Leveraging MSI’s findings, we have worked in close collaboration with the USDA, HHS, FDA and the White House. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service leadership has called MSI “a model for all industries” and the people at MSI “prescient.” Partially due to these efforts, the USDA has redesigned its school and adult nutrition campaigns to encourage the use of spices and herbs as substitutes for salt and has included spices and herbs in 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My family. Afsaneh, my love, my best friend, and wife of nearly 40 years is the most important ingredient of my success. She has made many sacrifices and kept our family life in order, so I can focus on my career success including travelling all over the world. My son Michael is the pride and joy of my life and has blessed us with two adorable granddaughters.

I grew up in 1950s and 60s, when there were two larger than life Americans with ideals and narratives with the potential and promise to change the world. One was an aspiring young senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, with his book on Profiles in Courage which redefined courage as a “moral choice”. The other a Southern Baptist minister and civil rights activist from Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, with his dream of a more just America and a more just world. At that young age, I was astounded by their calls on my generation for service to the needy, of courage to stand against tyranny, and universal acceptance of our fellow global citizens. I did my best to answer their call. I believe when you untangle the chains of stereotype and discrimination, you unleash the unlimited ability and god given talent of people to innovate more, to create more, to contribute more, to dream more, and to be more. Sometimes I wonder, what would have happened if JFK wouldn’t “ask” or Dr. King wouldn’t “dream”.

Throughout my life, I have witnessed ordinary people, common citizens, sometimes with bare hands and without much means, have done or do extraordinary things. All my life I have done my best to mentor and champion the cause of the underprivileged and create an environment that is considered the gold standards in diversity and inclusion. McCormick R&D usually receives one of the highest employee satisfaction and engagement scores in the global company. Service has been my beacon throughout my career, from volunteer nutrition work in orphanages of Tehran, to policy strategy development with the White House and USDA on dietary guidelines, to creation of the McCormick Science Institute.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

For my entire professional career, I have been involved in the new product, packaging, and processing innovation for the global food industry. The biggest challenge is to reinvent myself and mentoring others to do the same; to stay ahead of disruptive changes happening in front of our eyes on everything we do. In this environment, your biggest asset could become your biggest liability at the speed of light. The biggest challenge is to stay relevant to your consumer, customer, shareholder or your team.

McCormick has been a major player in spice production and was selling its herbs, spices, seasonings, flavorings, sauces, and extracts nationally and internationally. Could you elaborate on this?

Founded in 1889, McCormick & Company is the global leader in flavor. With over $5 billion in annual sales and 11700 employees, our company manufactures, markets, and distributes spices and herbs, seasoning mixes, condiments and other flavorful product to the entire food industry, retail outlets, food manufacturers, and food service businesses in 150 countries and territories. With a diverse and balanced product portfolio, we are ideally positioned to meet the increasing demand for flavor around the world. Through every milestone in our 130 years of history, there is a common thread; we have pushed the art, science, and passion of flavor to a higher level, improving the universal experience of eating while always focusing on the importance of our people.

As the Chief Science Officer, who leads a global team of scientists and flavorists responsible for research, product development, and technical services, what do you have planned for the future of your company?

In the coming decade, our industry will face seismic changes. Among them is the unprecedented explosion of e-commerce that has disrupted the entire retail supply chain from end to end. The food industry will go through major M&A to stay competitive. The new generation of consumers led by millennials are forcing CPG to have greater focus on transparency, natural, organic, GMO, sustainability, and social responsibility. The information technology revolution will change almost everything we are doing today. Nutrogenomics and customized nutrition will transition from experimental to mainstream. And last but not the least, global warming, droughts, and loss of cultivable land and mass migration from rural to city centers are threatening all agriculture-based industries.

As the Chief Science Officer of McCormick, my number one responsibility is to turn all these seemingly insurmountable challenges into opportunities for accelerated growth, wealth creation, and competitive advantage. For example, E-commerce will provide unlimited shelf space which in turn will offer a platform for significant increases in new product introductions and mass customization. Advances in data analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotics will simultaneously make new product development better, faster, and cheaper. Potential loss of cultivable land lends itself to explore aquaculture. There is never a dull moment in what I do day in and day out.

What achievement are you the proudest of?

My greatest passion in life is for people and positively impacting the state of mankind. Developing and mentoring others have been my greatest achievements. Michelangelo said there is a” David” in every piece of marble. I believe this to be true, and that every human being is special and unique and we all have exactly the same worth and deserve the same level of respect and dignity regardless of any social or economic circumstances. It informs my personal relationships, my leadership style, and my worldview.

Is there anything you would have done differently looking back at your career path?

No. A life dedicated to the advancement of food science and nutrition including the development of next generation of leaders has given me joy, recognition, and self-actualization beyond my wildest expectations. I feel extremely lucky that I chose my profession in the 10th grade and never ever regretted my decision. The words of Frank Sinatra in the song “My Way” truly apply to me, that “regret, I have had a few but again too few to mention”.

What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to follow your path?

Food and nutrition business is a fantastic business. Our universities are discovering new frontiers in food science and are training the brightest minds our industry has ever seen. Our industry has come a long way from basic food and agricultural production to the pinnacle of innovation producing safe, reliable, sustainable, affordable, and delicious foods for billions of consumers around the globe. As food and nutrition scientists, we have a lot to be proud of. We also face big challenges, but none that are insurmountable. Rather, they present incredible opportunity.

My advice to the next generation of professionals is to champion the birth of new dreams for greater possibilities, create new Teslas and Googles, win many more Nobel prizes, and become larger than life personalities. We have done our best and all we could. It is now your turn to climb your mountain, reach your summit, and materialize your dream. In doing so, you ensure that America, this last best hope of humanity, this great beacon of freedom and opportunity, remains the shining city upon a hill and great inspiration of mankind it has become.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does being an Iranian-American mean to you?

I am proud of my Iranian heritage. My experience as an Iranian-American has inspired me to promote open-mindedness, tolerance, diversity and global perspectives, to seek consensus-oriented win-win solutions that satisfy diverse constituencies.

As a naturalized Iranian-American and a scientist, I feel extremely fortunate to call America, today’s great beacon of science and innovation, my home. I believe my immigration to America has been essential in my ability to pursue and fulfill my destiny to use my talent to make a positive contribution (albeit very small) to serve the world at large.

Our biggest challenge and opportunity is telling the story of the invaluable contributions we, as Iranian Americans, make to our chosen home, America, in the areas of science, medicine, finance, arts and humanities. My advice to all ethnic and minority groups, including Iranian Americans, is to wholeheartedly embrace American values and to join the American life without losing the key and defining attributes of your ethnicity. America is a “melting pot” nation and the diversity of thoughts, ideas, contexts, cultures, and even food habits, is what makes us so special.