Word Power: Understanding “healthy” with Dr. Matthew Lange
Dr. Matthew Lange joined the Food Innovation Summer School from California where he is a professor at UC Davis in the Department of Food Science and Technology. His courses cover a broad spectrum of food-related topics, including product development, health technologies and let’s not forget, beer making. With a Ph.D. in Food Science Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Health Informatics, Dr. Lange is working to merge semantics, data, and knowledge around food, agriculture, diet and health to create an accessible knowledge base around these sectors. We had a chance to hear from Dr. Lange about what exactly all this means for future Featers!
When I first heard the terms from Matthew like “linked object data architecture,” “semantic web,” and “ontological framework,” I was immediately scared. I didn’t know if it was the fault of my English or just my lack of background that was intimidating. But seconds after he started speaking, I knew we were on the same page. I met Matthew through the Food Innovation Program, when Feat was in its initial prototyping stage and Matthew came for a guest lecture. All of sudden I found someone who was wondering the same thing as me, “How to quantify links between physical activity, food and health?” From that point on, we kept in touch constantly — updating each other on our projects, work and ideas, and creating a constructive collaboration with Feat in the middle.
Of course, Matthew has years of academic studies and scientific research under his belt, but when he shares his studies it’s impossible not to be excited. This past weekend, he started by analyzing what we think of as health. I’ve already been exposed to his approach this past year, both in Reggio Emilia and at UC Davis, when I attended one of his classes. He pointed out how good physicians and the scientific community is in recognizing and defining disease, but in terms of “healthy”, it’s harder to pinpoint an exact formula. “Health is subjective in nature, which is what makes it different from disease. How healthy you are depends on what you want to do. For example,” he says, “different dimensions of health must be optimized if I want to surf the Pacific ocean than if I want to surf the web.”
Exactly! I remember struggling to find a diet that felt good and healthy for me when I first traveled outside my native Italy. And I also think for me, one of the exciting things about starting Feat was that it motivated me to have fun with exercise, but it didn’t limit me to one type of exercise. “When it comes to health,” says Matthew, “you know what you digest, what stresses you out, what keeps you up at night. Individuals take responsibility for our health but our physicians are in change or our disease.” Even during the Summer School, we have been asking students what a healthy lifestyle looks like. And what habits they engage in to maintain a healthy lifestyle. And guess what? They are all different!
But what Matthew is doing is working to empower people to make better decisions about what they choose to do. To bring awareness to how they feel, to their health goals and to do this by making data accessible and available. Matthew’s work brings together three things that are personally important and that I hope to develop with Feat. Diet, activity and location. “If we want to talk about food and health, it’s impossible to ignore these things,” he says. I see Feat in a very similar way. I see Feat as a tool to encourage healthy habits wherever they are through physical activity and diet, and expose people to understanding patterns in what makes them feel healthy. It’s a way to empower people to stay accountable for their choices, and that sounds like staying healthy to me.
I’m also always inspired by the way Matthew talks about the complexity of food. As an Italian, I often take good food for granted but I know that today more people are looking for an answer to what good food really is, and that is where things get hard. “Traceability and transparency. We want trust,” says Matthew. “Food is way more complicated than drugs. Just the pasta in a lasagna is more complicated than the molecules in isolation of a drug.” It’s fascinating to think about that flexibility. I hope Feat can develop into a tool to promote this sort of trust from consumer to food company.
Even being here at the Food Innovation Summer School, we were able to experience producers making artisanal cheese, donkey salami, tradition chocolates and tomato sauces from family recipes. We visited a nursery growing 200 varieties of plants. These experiences help get us closer to food as a group, but now there’s the tricky part of translating this experience into data and words. I’m excited to continue to collaborate with Matthew to bring Feat into this realm of health data. With Matthew’s mentorship, I hope to really build a strong academic base around Feat and collect data that will show how Feat can be a tool in changing lifestyles. We’re working to set up a pilot program in the US that will target early adopters and help create a framework for Feat as an innovative tool in this precision health field. Thanks to Matthew for believing in Feat and here’s to making new strides in the name of health!