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Tara McHugh Research Leader, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Albany, CA

Stories of Technology in Agriculture
Tara McHugh, Research Leader, Healthy Processed Foods Research, USDA, Agricultural Research Service, Western Regional Research Center,
Albany, CA

Photograph of Tara McHugh in the laboratory.

Helping support healthy diets takes creativity, teamwork, funding, and a lot of communication. Creativity: take a tough, seemingly unfixable problem and look at it from a new angle. Teamwork: assemble a first-rate group of researchers to test solutions. Funding: whose problem will the project solve? Collaborate with leaders in that industry for support. Communication: share with consumers important information about their foods.

Tara McHugh, Research Leader of the Healthy Processed Foods Research unit of Agricultural Research Service, has defined this prescription for more than 22 years, helping to make the foods we need healthier, more marketable, and safer through sustainable processing technologies. She is best known for developing an incredible edible film made of crushed fruit that can be used to help consumers eat more fruits and veggies, extend the shelf life of foods and also keep the foods free of bacteria. Her research and development efforts also led to a process for increasing the amount of essential vitamin D that mushrooms provide, which has had benefits to human health as well as boosting the market for specialty crop growers.

Dr. McHugh leads a team of thirty highly effective scientists working on a wide range of high impact research projects that has secured over $2.5 million in extramural funds last year alone from commodity organizations, government agencies, and industrial partners. “We make our creative, new technology beneficial to a greater number of people through cooperative research and development agreements with private industry and universities,” explains Dr. McHugh.

For example, to help people eat more fruit – as in USDA guidelines – the team developed a new technology that formed health bars made 100% from pears and other fruits. The bars are concentrated, convenient sources of fruit, with one bar equal to two servings of fruit. Single serving bars are manufactured for the school lunch program as well. Through collaboration with an industrial partner, Gorge Delights, the bars have been commercially produced in a plant in North Bonneville, WA, creating forty new jobs in an area of high unemployment. Now, a whole product line of organic 100% fruit bars is available, thanks to this grassroots effort of fruit growers.

Numerous awards, scientific articles, popular press features and high demand for her leadership on innovative technology in the food and agriculture world all indicate a career that serves the public.