2024 Science, Technology and Environment

Tara McHugh 

Partnered with innovators to develop novel healthy processed food products that have reduced food waste and created jobs in high-unemployment areas, and now leads more than 1,400 employees in eight Western states.

Known as the Willy Wonka of healthy food, Tara McHugh is both a food scientist and a senior scientific leader, whose work has led to healthier processed fare for the public and made a dent in the $400-billion problem of food waste in the U.S.  

The products originating in McHugh’s lab at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service also provide nutrition-rich, shelf-stable goods for people with no easy access to fresh produce. 

“She’s a real talent, not only an outstanding scientist but also a very strong, effective manager,” said Simon Liu, ARS administrator.  

Helping bring healthy food products to market 

McHugh’s innovations have helped address the gargantuan challenges of poor nutrition and food waste in the U.S.   

The average U.S. diet falls well short of the recommended level of fruit and vegetable consumption made in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and a lack of vitamins and nutrients has been shown to contribute to serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes and even cancer.  

The U.S. also wastes more than $400 billion—and over 100 billion pounds—worth of food annually. Farms, manufacturers and consumer-facing businesses contribute to about half of that loss, making it more difficult for the more than 10% of Americans who are food insecure to get the nutritional content they need.  

McHugh addresses these challenges by developing new sustainable technologies to process healthy food products and partnering with others who seek food science help to make their product ideas a reality—a core part of ARS’ mission to provide American industry, farmers, producers and communities with solutions to support the nourishment of all people.  

“She recognizes that the government’s role is not to do all these things like we’re doing but to support those that want to do it and give life to projects and products that would not otherwise exist,” said Rodger Morris, CEO of Pop Oats.  

Morris experimented for months to perfect a crunchy oat snack for kids. After collaborating with McHugh’s lab to perfect the texture and flavors, he launched his company in 2023 and now sells the snack online. He also hopes to get the product into California schools and has bid to do so.  

Another product McHugh’s lab helped usher into existence is an environmentally friendly powder rich in protein and fiber made from the spent grains remaining after the beer brewing process. Known commercially as ReGrained SuperGrain, companies use the grain powder in baked goods and cereals. Recently, the Kroger grocery store chain introduced an award-winning “upcycled” multigrain quinoa bread that uses the powder.  

In earlier days, McHugh’s inventiveness led to the world’s first 100% fruit bar snack, which contains no preservatives, fillers or other artificial ingredients and is made from misshapen or perishable fruits that might otherwise have been tossed. She also helped develop edible “films” from fruit and vegetable purees that can substitute for the tortilla in a sandwich wrap or be used to make sushi.  

Matthew de Bord, founder and president of NewGem Foods, brought the idea to McHugh’s lab and worked with her to perfect it. People who want to test a product idea with ARS’ assistance sign a partnership agreement with a federal laboratory to create their product for a profit-making enterprise, said David Nicholson, a USDA technology transfer coordinator who works with McHugh.  

“The idea is not to produce simply laboratory curiosities,” he said. “The idea is to actually solve a problem, and then get the solution out to people who can use it,” he added.  

Another one of those solutions is a brand of fresh mushrooms that is higher in vitamin D thanks to a novel ultraviolet light treatment developed in McHugh’s lab. 

Along with reducing waste and helping people eat healthier foods, products launched with the help of McHugh’s lab led to the creation of 10 companies, many in rural areas that welcomed the new jobs.  

Branching out into new scientific disciplines 

In October 2022, McHugh became the ARS’ Pacific West area director, overseeing a budget of more than $275 million and 49 research units in eight Western states, a big leap from the one location she had been overseeing. “That’s a lot of responsibility in addition to research by herself and her team,” Liu said. 

McHugh now leads the planning and implementation of ARS research at 21 locations, ensuring it is of high quality, has impact, and meets customer and stakeholder needs, and she is committed to serving ARS employees in the best manner possible. 

“There’s a much broader scientific portfolio of tools and people that can be used to solve problems across the country that agriculture faces,” McHugh said. “I hope I can have a broader impact across multiple scientific disciplines in this new role.”