Michael Gibney obituary: Prominent food scientist was a ‘colossus in nutrition’ and an ‘original thinker’

A self-described iconoclast, he enjoyed challenging conventional wisdom on issues such as the tax on fizzy drinks

Born July 4th, 1948

Died February 23rd, 2024

Michael Gibney, one of Ireland’s most prominent food scientists and an internationally renowned researcher in human nutrition, has died following a short illness.

Gibney was professor of food and health at University College Dublin and director of the UCD Institute of Food and Health 2006-2013. Before his move to UCD, he was professor of human nutrition at Trinity College Dublin Medical School for more than 20 years.

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A prodigious researcher, Gibney led several influential research projects including studies on the interaction between genes and diet (the national nutrition phenotype database) and food consumption patterns in Ireland (the national adult nutrition survey). He was also involved in EU-funded collaborative research into personalised nutrition and human food chemical exposure.

While at Trinity he developed a worldwide reputation for his work on metabolic nutrition, or the body’s physiological interaction with food, and molecular nutrition, or genes linked to food consumption. He was also renowned for his work on public health nutrition, including dietary guidelines.

As well as being chairman of the Royal Irish Academy’s nutrition committee, he was the first Irish person to be elected a fellow of the American Society for Nutrition.

Gibney served on food safety and health advisory committees and boards of national and international agencies and food manufacturing companies. He was a member of the EU scientific committees for food in the 1980s and 1990s and on public health, where he advised the European Commission on the BSE crisis. These committees were the forerunners of the European Food Safety Authority.

In 1992 he chaired the first EU expert group on recommended dietary allowance, which set out the average daily nutrient requirements for healthy individuals. In 1995 he chaired the FAO/WHO joint consultation on food-based dietary guidelines, which are still in use. He was also a long-standing member of the London-based Nutrition Society, serving as its president for a year in 1994, during which time he introduced a new journal of public health nutrition and academic textbooks on human nutrition.

In 2013-2018 he was chairman of the board of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Gibney was also a member of Ireland’s hunger taskforce, which delivered a report to the UN General Assembly in 2008 on how to tackle the root causes of hunger in the developing world. His 2013 TEDx UCD talk on hunger explains the importance of the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life, including the in utero impact of a malnourished mother.

For more than 30 years, he served on the Nestlé Nutrition Council, advising business and technical leaders on the latest developments in nutrition for adults and children. He also chaired an international research group for cereal manufacturers for a few years. When challenged about these roles, he always argued that working with the food industry was essential and that his advice to them didn’t diminish his scientific integrity.

Gibney was a prolific writer of scientific papers and popular science articles, and the author of three books: Nutrition, Diet and Health (1986); Something to Chew On: Challenging Controversies in Food and Health (2012); and Ever Seen a Fat Fox? Human Obesity Explored (2016). A self-described iconoclast, he enjoyed challenging conventional wisdom and populist policies on matters including the tax on fizzy drinks and perceptions of ultra-processed foods. Quoting an early mentor, he said the most important rule in nutrition was that there is no such thing as a good food or a bad food, just good diets or bad diets. “A good diet is one that contains a balance of foods which give you the nutrients that are optimal for your health,” he often said.

He argued that sociocultural changes had contributed more to obesity than processed foods, and food manufacturers had “no choice but to invest in reformulation and drop lines that don’t meet nutritional standards”. An engaging and passionate lecturer and valued mentor for researchers, he has been described by former students as inspirational, humorous, kind and fair. He advised early stage researchers to be “patient, determined and resilient”.

“An academic career is about more than just research and teaching the minutiae of nutrition but about life and living, challenges and failures,” he said. “Hold no fear of change and be courageous in challenging conventional wisdom.”

His move from Trinity – along with a team of 23 researchers – to UCD in 2006 caused quite a stir in academic circles

Patrick Wall, professor of public health at the school of medicine at UCD said Gibney was a “colossus in nutrition” in both TCD and UCD. “He shaped many people’s lives and was a phenomenal motivator of young people.”

Albert Flynn, emeritus professor in nutrition at the school of food and nutritional sciences in University College Cork said Gibney was an “original thinker and a straight talker” who believed the only way science could progress was by challenging conventional wisdom. “He had a vision of what the future could be like, and he brought large consortium of researchers together to demonstrate the potential and limitations of different nutritional concepts.”

Back in the early 1990s, Gibney, Flynn and Sean Strain, professor of nutrition at the University of Ulster, formed the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance – a collaboration that raised the international profile of human nutrition research on this island.

Gibney grew up on Collins Avenue in north Dublin, the second-eldest of six children of carpenter-turned-trade unionist Michael Gibney, and Rosemary, a nurse.

Following his secondary school education at Marian College in Ballsbridge, Dublin, his desire to study nutrition led him to a degree in agricultural science at UCD, where he graduated with first-class honours in 1971.

He married Josephine (Jo) McDermottroe later that year. Gibney completed a master’s degree in agricultural chemistry at UCD the following year before moving with his wife to Australia to do a PhD at the University of Sydney in 1973-1976. He returned to Ireland to work for a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Irish Agricultural Institute [now Teagasc] before moving to lecture in human nutrition at the University of Southampton Medical School, where he remained for eight years. He was professor of human nutrition at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Trinity 1984-2006. He was dean for research and innovation at the same university during 2001-2004, during which time he helped shape new institutes in nanoscience and neuroscience.

His move from Trinity – along with a team of 23 researchers – to UCD in 2006 caused quite a stir in academic circles. At that time, UCD was setting up its Institute of Food and Health with a wide-ranging focus on agriculture, food science, human nutrition and food law, and Gibney became its first director.

His wife, Jo, worked closely with him on all his research projects in Trinity and UCD, and his middle daughter, Eileen Gibney, is now director of the Institute of Food and Health, having already worked in UCD before her father moved there.

Michael subsequently was professor of nutrition at the University of Ulster, in 2013-2016. He was completing a book on processed foods at the time of his death.

He is survived by Jo, his children, Michael, Eileen and Sinead; his siblings Fintan, Cormac, Louise and Rosemary; and his grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister Isabel.

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