Alumni Spotlight – Starbucks Scientist Uncovers Food Secrets


Brian Schaneberg ‘95 began his research on plants at Central.

Coffee is a driving force in Brian Schaneberg’s life. Working in the area of scientific and regulatory affairs for Starbucks, the 1995 Central graduate leads a team of 18 scientists who assure regulatory compliance of labeling, nutrition and international standards for beverage and food products for the international company headquartered in Seattle.

“This is surprisingly creative work,” Schaneberg says of the position he’s held for nearly three years. “We work with all crossfunctions of the business — from marketing and product development to food safety and packaging.

“My job is to bridge science and business. That’s what drives me. I’ve always been curious about ‘how does it work?’ As a scientist, you are always asking questions and finding answers. Although I am not professional in these fields, I get to play in the health field in this job — asking ‘what is beneficial about coffee?’ — and I get to play in the field of regulation — asking ‘what’s right?’ in meeting guidelines and laws.”

When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee came out in favor of daily coffee consumption, few could have appreciated the findings as much as Schaneberg. “This conclusion by the committee further supports the results being reported in the peer reviewed scientific literature. But our work requires more expertise than just coffee — there are teas and juices on the menu, too.”

Schaneberg’s interest in natural products began on campus with adviser Dan Bruss, former chemistry professor. “Dr. Bruss was big into plant use and natural products for drug discovery. When I was looking for summer research opportunities during my junior year, he connected me with a program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) that focused on plants and natural products. I worked at VCU the summer before my senior year on a plant-based research project.”

When Schaneberg came to Central from Rochelle, Ill., he was on a path to engineering school. But his interest in the 3D visual nature of organic chemistry led him to change his major to chemistry and his minor to biology during his first semester. He completed his Ph.D. at VCU in 2000, where he studied the isolation and elucidation of possible therapeutic drugs while always digging further into the folklore of plants, or the history and stories behind plant populations.

“Plants have a certain tradition in certain cultures and areas of the country and world,” Schaneberg says. “Reading about and learning about what those stories are and what’s used for medicinal purposes is an important field of study.”

Schaneberg continued his plant-based research in a post-doctoral program at the National Center for Natural Products at the University of Mississippi, where he worked on development of methodologies to identify plants for drug use.

During the next decade, Schaneberg worked for two top natural products research companies — ChromaDex and Mars Botanical, the scientific arm of the famous candy brand. At Mars, Schaneberg helped to develop and bring to market the company’s first dietary supplement, CocoaVia. His work there involved leading a clinical research program, using Mars’ 30 years of research into cocoa and making it compliant with FDA standards for dietary supplements. Work travel took him to Brazil and Indonesia “to understand the folklore of cocoa and to develop a clinical profile of cocoa flavinols.”

“This is a path I never expected,” Schaneberg says. “I knew I wanted to do more than lab work. I wanted to work with people and multiple projects on a team to increase my knowledge. I enjoy getting out of the lab and doing the necessary organizational and committee work required in a corporate setting. When leading a team, the success is in their success.”

In his downtime from the world of caffeine, Schaneberg still enjoys tennis, which he played at Central, and club volleyball (he served as Central’s assistant women’s coach). His work at Starbucks and the surrounding Seattle area also supports his love of hiking, camping and water sports.

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