Mount Holyoke Alumna Leaves Academia to Develop Safe and Nutritional Food
“It’s not about what others are doing, but about what you know you should be doing,” says Abena Opokua Foli ’10, regulatory food scientist at Saputo Dairy Foods USA in Dallas, Texas.
For Foli, an experience at a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program at Yale University, where she conducted research in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, helped her realize what she should be doing. And that it wasn’t pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry—which had been her original plan—but instead pursuing food science, a subject that joined the two passions she had held since childhood.
In her current role, Foli works with teams on the regulatory implications and impacts of ingredient, formula, and packaging development, from samples to finished product launch. Her work also includes developing nutrition labels and ingredient information that are compliant with Food and Drug Administration regulations.
Growing up in Ghana, West Africa, Foli and her brother often helped their father, a farmer of poultry and vegetables, dress chickens for his customers. She also learned to cook at a young age and remembers her dad taking her on as his “little sous chef” after noticing her love of food.
At Mount Holyoke she enrolled as a biochemistry major. The Yale program seemed a perfect step on the road to pursuing the graduate degree she had set her mind to. But while she was there a conversation with her mentor prompted her to reimagine her future to be one that served her passions.
“She looked at me intently and said, ‘If you are going to pursue a PhD, do it in a field you are very passionate about and would be excited to wake up to every day.’ Immediately, that vision of a PhD in biochemistry flew out the window and I knew I had to do something related to food and science.”
During the subsequent summers, instead of pursuing biochemistry research projects, Foli jumped into researching food science.
“Often people confuse food science for culinary science or nutrition science,” explains Foli. “The field of food science is very broad and includes microbiology, engineering, quality assurance, packaging, regulatory affairs, sensory science, culinology, and nutrition.” Being a food scientists, says Foli, means applying all of the above to develop safe and nutritious food and packaging for consumers.
Foli, who earned a master’s degree in food science from the University of Minnesota, is also the owner of a small food ecommerce business, POKS Spices, where she develops and retails all-purpose seasonings inspired by the authentic and bold flavors from Ghana. When she moved to the United States to attend Mount Holyoke, Foli saw an abundance of foods from other cultures in major retail stores but no locally made or inspired food products from West Africa. Wishing to fill that gap and introduce flavorful, nutritious foods that she grew up eating, she launched POKS Spices. Her goal is to expand the business and use it as a platform to bring food from Ghana to the US market.
“When I embarked on the food science path, I was the only one among the biochemistry students in my class who wasn’t pursuing medical school,” says Foli. While the path felt lonely at times, she looked ahead to her long-term vision of this road less traveled.
“There is no dream, purpose, or vision too big for you to go after. All you need to do is write the vision, make it plain, and know that although it may tarry, it will surely come to pass.”
—By Jess Ayer
July 11, 2017