The high tech facilities where Jairam Vanamala probes the links between food and health are a long way from the rural village in southern India where he grew up, but to him the two are closely connected.
Vanamala, an associate professor of food science at Penn State, got his first training in the lush fruit and vegetable fields that surrounded his hometown. There, "eating healthy" was more than a catchy slogan for the villagers; with the nearest health facility almost 40 miles away, it could mean the difference between life and death.
For generations, Vanamala's family was active in helping residents of the community maintain good health through diet, exercise, and lifestyle modifications that are integral aspects of Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional Hindu system of health care that stretches back thousands of years. His childhood experience helping his mother tend gardens and grow medicinal herbs influenced Vanamala's philosophy about the connection between health and diet -- and continues to shape his journey as a researcher today.
"It is something that has been passed down from generation to generation," says Vanamala, who is also a faculty member at the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute. "Helping people become strong and robust and maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet are some of the best strategies for preventing disease."
His formal career began with the study of food production and food processing as he pursued his bachelor's and master's degrees in India. He then moved to the United States, completing his doctoral work at Texas A&M University and eventually coming to Penn State.
Vanamala now combines modern analytical technologies with his early lessons on the importance of food and food production. He hopes the results will someday help people choose better foods, or find ways to make foods healthier.
"What we're doing is going back to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's philosophy: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," says Vanamala, quoting an 18th-century French lawyer and pioneer in the Western study of food's effect on health.