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Emma Patterson

Emma Patterson 130x180I grew up in Dublin, Ireland. As I child I was an avid reader, the sort that would read absolutely anything nearby with writing on it, including food packaging. I never really paid too much attention to the boring ingredient listings and nutritional information until I became a vegetarian in my teens and the habit of scouring ingredients for animal-based components really made me aware of what it was that I was actually eating. There are animal bone derivatives in jellies and sweets? What else might be lurking in there that I am totally unaware of? Why do seemingly simple foodstuffs have such long lists of strange-sounding ingredients? How can the naming and marketing of foods be so at odds with what they are made of? A number of high-profile food scares and scandals (BSE/mad cow disease, growth promoter use in cattle) at the time also opened my eyes to unsustainable and questionable practices in farming/food production.

Being a vegetarian has frequently prompted people I meet to ask questions about my food choices. More often than not the ensuing comments reinforced my belief that we are dangerously disconnected from the foods we eat and that many people mindlessly consume food without thinking about what it really is or where it has come from. I see this disconnection as a significant public health nutrition issue with consequences for our health and the environment and I admire writers such as Michael Pollan who do a fantastic job of making this complex topic accessible for many.

At college I began a general science degree but after a year I realised that obvious choice for me given my interests in food, science and health was nutrition and I applied to the human nutrition and dietetics course at Trinity College Dublin/Dublin Institute of Technology.

At first I was more interested in the clinical aspect of nutrition, and the course was geared towards this. However my interest in public health nutrition was really sparked by some inspiring lecturers. In addition, the course required a six month clinical dietetics training and it was during this that I became really alarmed at the scale of the problems caused by unhealthy habits. As I sat in yet another outpatient clinic repeating yet again the mantra of dietary advice I realised that personally I found it too frustrating to work so far downstream – I wanted to focus on the problems way upstream.

Then fate intervened and the desire to complete my final year research project abroad placed me at the Unit for Preventive Nutrition at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, and I have been living in Sweden ever since. The project placement led to a stint as a project assistant and then in turn to a doctoral position, studying child and adolescent dietary patterns. After postdocs in public health sciences and nutritional epidemiology, I now manage a project called SkolmatSverige [School Food Sweden], which surveys school meal quality with the help of a novel web-based instrument and will enable research on the effects of Sweden’s progressive national policy of free school lunches to all children. School food in general has massive capacity to improve the health of children in both developed and developing countries and is an exciting facet of public health nutrition to work with.