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New Food Chemists At UW-Madison

Food chemists John Lucey and Leslie Plhak have joined the Department of Food Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

At the food science department, Lucey’s research will focus mainly on the physical properties of dairy products. He is especially interested in the development of cheese texture and structure, and the interactions between milk proteins and the gums used as thickeners and stabilizers in yogurts, fresh cheeses and other foods. He will also teach in cheesemaking short courses.

Lucey earned his doctorate from the Department of Food Chemistry at University College, Cork, Ireland. Working with Prof. P.F. Fox, considered one of the world”s top cheese experts, he studied acid-base buffering and rennet coagulation properties of milk systems. Lucey spent five years as research officer at Ireland”s National Dairy Products Research Center, where he managed cheese research projects funded by the Irish Dairy Levy. He spent a year as a visiting scientist in the Netherlands, studying milk gels with Prof. Pieter Walstra, an expert in the physical chemistry of food products and the author of several books on dairy technology/chemistry.

Before coming to the UW-Madison, he was a lecturer and research officer at Massey University in New Zealand. At Massey, Lucey lectured in food chemistry, supervised graduate students, and studied milk gels as well as the physical properties of cheese.

Plhak is developing analytical methods for studying bioactive ingredients in foods. For example, compounds in onions and garlic fight infections and lower blood pressure, compounds in flax have anti-cancer effects, and ginseng and purple coneflower are believed to stimulate the immune system. She plans to use antibodies to develop better methods to measure the compounds that make these and other foods bioactive, and then use these methods to study the effects of processing and storage on the stability of these compounds in foods. Bioactive food ingredients, often termed “nutriceuticals” or “functional foods,” represent the fastest-growing segment of the food industry in the United States today.

Plhak is slated to teach undergraduate courses in food analysis, and hopes to develop a graduate-level course in food analysis.

Plhak earned her doctorate in food chemistry at the University of Alberta, where she studied methods for identifying potato glycoalkaloids. She did post-doctorate studies in the Department of Immunology at Alberta, studying how neem, which has been used in India for more than 8,000 years as an all-purpose medicinal herb, affects the immune system. She was an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at Louisiana State University from 1995 to 1999.