FoodGrads Podcast Ep 47: Building your resume with university clubs and competitions with Valerie Ivanova, R&D Nutrition Label Developer and Coordinator at Ventura Foods

On episode 47 of the FoodGrads Podcast we interviewed Valerie Ivanova, R&D Nutrition Label Developer and Coordinator at Ventura Foods. Ventura Foods is a leading national manufacturer and marketer of branded and custom made shortenings, oils, dressings, sauces, margarines, culinary bases and pancoatings for the foodservice and retail industries.

In this episode Valerie told us more about her role at Ventra foods and how she approaches creating a nutritional label for a completed food product. What’s interesting about Valerie’s career journey so far was that she actually graduated at the time the COVID-19 was just emerging in Canada of March 2020.

Valerie was busy throughout her undergraduate degree at McGill university graduating with a double major and volunteering with student society so Veronica dug more into that decision of why she made that decision and how it helped her in the long run. We also had fun talking about her participation in the Snacks for Kids IFT competition and the really cool snack her team designed. Stay tuned if you want some insights into that process.

Show Notes

[00:01:40] Can you let us tell more about what it is like being an R&D label developer and your career journey?

  • Valerie studied at McGill University and did a double bachelor in food science and nutrition. After graduating from McGill she dipped her toe in the industry starting by working for FGF Brands as a food scientist. Currently she is now working for Ventura Foods which is a company that specialized in sauces and condiments.

[00:02:40] How did you manage to perform two majors at once?  S

  • Valerie questioned that a few time during her degree. It was just perseverance but she had chosen to do this because she wanted to do dietetics first after completing her general year at McGill and enjoyed bother aspects of food science and nutrition. The program was quite small allowing you to know everyone.  

[00:04:16] What are some of the courses that you took?

  • McGill had many general nutrition courses such as the human body and nutrition which had a lot of physiology aspects to it. The knowledge gained during the course was very valuable and really allowed for a broad view of the human body. It was a really interdisciplinary program.

[00:05:42] What is the process of getting a label on a package? How does it come to be?

  • The way that a label comes out is that you have your formula which is applicable to any food company then you import the information into a program known as Genesis which is a software used to create nutritional labels. Basically you take your formula put it into Genesis and it would output nutrition fact tables for you. Then all that is left is writing down the ingredients list and ingredients lists can vary based on what the customer wants.
  • For example, if the declaration of soya. In French it can be declared soy with a y or soya with an a. It is a matter of preference.

[00:09:37] Valerie starts sharing her experiences with food labelling

  • After taking this degree Valerie will always first go to a food label to see what is in the ingredients list and how they declare it.
  • Sweetening agents if it is in a product doesn’t necessarily have to be labelled under sugars. So if you have sugars then you could bracket with the sugars contained. Then if a product has multiple ingredients you could choose to include the sugar with the chocolate chips for example.
  • The CFIA regulations and what they consider a sweetening agent versus a sugar based ingredient can be found on their website. They have information about what a standard serving size is for ketchup.

[00:11:46] What do you find is exciting about your job as a R&D nutrition labelist?

  • Creating the part of a product which you know is going to be forward-facing to the customer. Some of the products that Valerie has worked on is something that her family and friends have actually consumed.

[00:12:45] What was your experience like being apart of the Institute of Food Science (IFT) Snacks for Kids competition?

  • The IFT competition allows food science students from different universities to complete in product development competitions. It happens once a year at the annual meet up but unfortunately because their year was in 2020 the competition went on online however it was a really valuable experience.  This complemented Valerie’s product development where her team decided to create a product. They needed to create something hasn’t been done before.
  • Their team decided to create a product for the kids category and they wanted to create something that hadn’t been done before but at the same time would seamlessly fit into any kid’s lunchbox and in order for it to seamlessly fit into anybody’s lunch box, like regardless of their dietary restrictions. They thought something that emulates a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because everyone loves peanut butter and jelly. Though the product would be peanut free.
  • They decided to replace the peanut butter with a pulse butter made from chick peas and create a vegan apple sauce. The idea was that these little cookies would have different emoji faces on them then treat it like a Dunkaroo.
  • Valerie’s team ended up winning second place in North America.

[00:17:31] Did you find that participating in the competition helped you when you were in your first roles?

  • Yes, it did help Valerie because she already knew what prototype testing was and at Give and Go Valerie had a great mentor which was surprised by her experiences.

[00:18:19] Did you find the transition between your undergraduate degree and the work force difficult? Was there anything that you would have done differently?

  • A big difference is that in school to a certain degree you were able to create your own schedule but once you enter the workforce this isn’t really possible. It was a big adjustment working every Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. In university there were some days that where you’re not prepared you don’t have to show up. However in the workplace you can’t do that because other people depend on you for projects and they can’t wait just because you are tired. After 2 years Valerie is more adjusted not. So I, I found that was injustice, but I feel like after two years, like now I’m better adjusted to a schedule like that. And I would also honestly say like, deadlines are pretty similar to university. Like just a stressful
  • Though a positive to that is after the day is done then you are done. In university even when you were done you would have to rush home, study or meal prep. Working has helped to create healthy boundaries. The fact that you’re just done after. The day is over versus university, it would be like you go to class, but then you still have to rush home and study or meal prep or whatever. Yeah, it was,

[00:21:46] Are there any skills or things that you are currently trying to learn?

  • Valerie is currently focused on her role and trying to be active on LinkedIn. Something as simple as reading their papers or doing a bit more research on the ingredients she is listing on labels. Is there any concerns like allergens?
  • As well Valerie is looking into potentially doing another certificate like a project managers certificate. Project management is really intriguing because it is amazing how someone can work on multiple project simultaneously and work with various departments. You might have something going on with R&D and you have to be prepared for that.

[00:24:14] Can you tell us more about your time doing extra-curriculars at McGill and what it was like being on the student council?

  • When Valerie first came to McGill she knew that she wanted to do extracurriculars but wasn’t sure what to join. She needed to find something that fit her schedule. After learning about the dietetics and human nutrition undergrad society on campus she decided to help out at events and work with the student council seeing if they needed help.
  • After that year she decided to join the board with the student council and during her first year there she acted as the VP of finance. This involved approving funding for clubs and any clubs they wanted to join. During her second year she was the vice president of business operation which involved managing the bar. It was more just overseeing things at the campus bar and bookstore, making sure that they were functioning seamlessly.
  • After doing these roles it helped her think more about project management because in a sense these role were performing project management because you have to deal with a variety of people and manage a variety of people. Though it was a great experience.

[00:27:50] Can you tell us more about your work as a nutrition educator? This role happened right after the pandemic started so how did that work for you?

  • Valerie worked for a non-profit in downtown Toronto called the College Montrose Children’s place. They do great work helping families in the Toronto area. As a nutrition educator she was responsible for talking to families on how to create easy, fast healthy meals for young kids. As well what kinds vitamins and minerals are in fruits and veggies for example.
  • It involved providing a lot of reassurance that it is okay to feed children certain things. For example, a lot of people had the misconception that frozen fruits and vegetable are not as healthy but they actually can be better for you and cheaper for those on a budget.

[00:33:07] Valerie reflect on how the experience helped her at Give and Go

  • Before working there Valerie didn’t realize they had create Two Bite Brownies and being a Canadian staple.

[00:34:46] What pieces of advice would you give to students looking to go into the food and beverage industries?

  • If you are looking to go into the food industry then really focus on making those valuable connections that can help you later on in life. Through networking Valerie was able to get two out of her three jobs she has worked at.  If you are still a student consider messaging people on LinkedIn asking them questions like how they would describe their company and their role. It is important to dip your foot into something like that because it will give you a good sense of what these professionals do.

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