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Studying the health benefits of plants, animals

From oilseeds to seal oil

(February 10, 2000, Gazette)

Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi

By Peter Barnes
SPARK Student

Every so often, a new buzzword seems to appear as the focus of research in the field of food science and nutrition. The ’80s saw the term “biotechnology,” while in the ’90s the buzzword was undoubtedly “antioxidants.”

As we begin the new decade, “nutraceuticals” and “phytochemicals” seem to have become a main focus of research.

To noted Memorial food scientist Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi, university research professor, these topics are more than just buzzwords.
“Under one banner, I can say what defines our work is phytochemicals and nutraceuticals,” stated Dr. Shahidi. “Phytochemicals refer to plant-based bioactive compounds, many of which have antioxidant properties. Nutraceuticals refer to products consumed in the form of pills, capsules, powder, or liquid that may be animal or plant derived and are used for their health benefits and not their usual nutrition.

“For example, people do not take seal oil for its energy value, but instead for its benefits. That’s a nutraceutical.”

Dr. Shahidi knows well the benefits of seal oil. Believing that seals can be completely utilized, Dr. Shahidi was the first to engage in research on seals and seal products and is one of the key proponents of the Newfoundland seal industry.

His research has included seals for some time now, and he has been credited with helping to breathe new life into the seal industry.

Yet seals are only one of the many aspects of his work. Indeed, Dr. Shahidi’s research covers flora and fauna as diverse as almonds and sea urchins, and from oilseeds to seal oil. His research has led him to write 23 books and over 350 research publications, earned a number of patents, and given him international renown. Students from all over the world come to Memorial just to study under Dr. Shahidi, a fact he considers to be both humbling and an honour.

“One day I counted and I had people from 11 different countries in my lab.”

This may be part of the reason why Dr. Shahidi enjoys teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level as well as conducting his world-class research. He presently has 11 researchers ranging from honours undergraduate to post doctorate fellows and a visiting professor working in his laboratory.

And yet, this has been the minimum number of students in his lab for a number of years. He also teaches an undergraduate course in food chemistry as well as graduate courses in food biochemistry, marine biochemistry, and others. His devotion to his students is such that his office door is always open to any student who requires help.

A pure physical-organic chemist by training, Dr. Shahidi discovered his interest in food science while studying free radicals at the University of Toronto in the late ’70s. Upon seeing how free radicals can form in the body and in food, Dr. Shahidi became interested in food science. That interest eventually led him to Memorial University, where he uses his background in chemistry to conduct food science research.
He was named university research professor in 1998.

“It all comes down to the use of chemistry and analytical methods,” he said. “The use of it and seeing your final work being reduced to practice in terms of a product, not just a publication that may collect dust on a shelf, is what has given me the energy to move more to reduce the basic science into practice and allow it to be used by the general public.”