'So much of the narrative about food these days is not based on scientific evidence'

Oonagh Monahan, Founder and Principle of Alpha Omega Consultants in Co. Leitrim on how fads and food fashions lead people down dietary paths that are completely without basis in fact

16th May, 2018
Oonagh Monahan, Founder and Principle of Alpha Omega Consultants in Co.Leitrim

What's your name?

Oonagh Monahan, Founder and Principle of Alpha Omega Consultants in Co.Leitrim.

What’s your current job?

Food Business Development Consultant and author of the book “Money for Jam – the Essential Guide to Starting your Own Small Food Business” . I set up my own business in 2008 providing consultancy services to the food industry. I’m the technical spokesperson for the Irish Bread Bakers Association.

How long have you held the position?

10 years

Can you describe your daily work routine?

I work from a home office above our garage, so unless I’m on the road meeting clients, I work from there, starting as soon as the kids have left for school, at about 8:30am, and working on until about 6pm. The beauty of this arrangement is that if it’s a nice day, I might head out for a walk to clear the head at some point.

My food business clients come from all across the island of Ireland and are very diverse, ranging from small, one-person start-up operations, either producers or in the hospitality sector, to medium-sized health food companies, to large vegetable processors or bakeries for example, some of whom are exporting to the UK and beyond. The day might consist of meeting clients for mentoring, organising food business training courses, working on strategic development for growth, business planning for expansion and diversification, making funding applications, helping them with new product development, facilitating knowledge transfer between food businesses and academia, helping them plan for the potential challenges that Brexit might bring by looking at their export options and the effect on the bottom line (they should be doing this anyway, Brexit or no Brexit!), as well as addressing with various issues on behalf of the Irish Bread Bakers’ Association of course. Every day is different.

What is your professional background?

I graduated from NUIGalway in 1986 with a degree in Microbiology and Biochemistry. I then went to DIT Kevin St and did a Graduate Diploma in Food Science and Technology. From there I worked in Elan Pharmaceuticals in Athlone for a short while before winning a scholarship from HJ Heinz (the salad cream people) to do a research Masters in Engineering Science at UCD. I worked as a food technologist for Manor Bakeries in the UK making cakes for Mr. Kipling and Cadbury’s before returning to Ireland as Quality Manager with Kerry Foods at Grove Turkeys in Monaghan. I left the food industry for a while and was Production Manager at Fort Dodge Laboratories in Sligo which made veterinary vaccines and I was the first woman appointed to the Board of Directors there. Then I moved to the role of General Manager at the Food Technology Centre at St. Angela’s College in Sligo before setting up Alpha Omega Consultants in 2008.

Tell me about yourself away from work?

Most weekends are spent ferrying children (Emmet,15 and Anna, 13) to various activities, but we try to get out for a walk as a family on Sunday afternoons – we’re working our way through the trails on www.sligowalks.ie I love music, the arts and film and I’m an on/off member of Sligo Orpheus Choir. I was previously a member of the Board of Directors at The Model & Niland Gallery in Sligo and of Cinema North West which was a mobile, touring cinemobile. I’m also a big supporter of developing STEM for girls and young women and I have been involved with WITS – Women in Technology and Science. But sometimes it's hard to beat Netflix and maltesers on a Friday night with my husband or a G&T on a Summer’s evening!

Tell us something very few people know about you?

I’ve done a tandem parachute jump and auditioned for The Commitments movie when it was being made in Dublin and I also tried out for You’re A Star (cringe). Both terrifying!

You are speaking at the forthcoming National Food and Drink Industry Summit in Dublin. What is the focus of your talk?

So much of the narrative about food these days is not based on scientific evidence. Fads and food fashions lead people down dietary paths that are completely without basis in fact, and I want people to learn to read labels, inform themselves and understand what really is good or bad when it comes to food and food ingredients and how this is regulated. What appears to be “healthy” may not be at all, and what some people label as “Unhealthy” simply is not the case. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There is room for both artisan and large scale food production. Consumers should have a choice and proper knowledge will help them choose.

In your opinion what are the main trends and disruptions having effect on the industry?

A huge trend in recent years has been the gluten-free movement. Bearing in mind that less than 3% of the population is actually coeliac, or that the growth in demand gluten free has provided an opportunity for some small producers, the reality is that most consumers do not have any intolerance to gluten. Gluten is NOT unhealthy! When it comes to looking for particular foods to blame for weight gain, carbohydrates are an easy target, and bread in particular has taken a hit. The facts are different however, bread is good for you, but people are easily led. Again, much of this is down to misinformation. Fake food news in fact.

What changes do you envisage for the food and drink sector over the next five years?

I see a rise in plant-based diets. Vegetarianism is already mainstream, veganism is fast on its way to being so too. The development of new ingredients from plant extracts, such as rosemary being used as an antioxidant, for example, will start to replace existing ingredients as producers move more towards ‘clean label’. Snacking, health and wellness lifestyles will continue to drive the rise of healthy, on the go, convenience foods. Also, new, novel packaging development will be huge as consumers move away from plastic.

Oonagh Monahan is appearing at the National Food and Drink Industry Summit. The agenda and further details for this important national event at Croke Park on June 12th, are available at foodindustry.ie

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