Food science is the study of food.
Now, more than ever, we care about the food we eat. As consumers, we are mindful of quality, nutrition, convenience, cost, and the source of our food. In the US, we enjoy a food system that is safe, reliable, and robust. Most of us shop a grocery store where we can find an array of diverse products at various price points. But this is not the case everywhere.
How can we feed our ever-growing population? How can we introduce better nutrition to our products? How can we make food more affordable and accessible to all? How can we make food taste better, look better, and be more appealing? These answers can be found in food science. Our population is rapidly growing, and we all eat.
What does a food scientist do?
Food scientists help develop new food products and improve existing ones. We develop food products for children, the elderly, the “food snob,” the everyman, the space program, and malnourished populations in developing countries. Some food scientists work on a raw commodity, improving the ingredient at its foundation. Other food scientists work at a food manufacturing company, developing all those products we find at the grocery store.
Good food scientists apply an understanding of food processing, chemistry, and biology (and microbiology) to create a new food product. Then, we work with professionals in marketing, purchasing, engineering, packaging, graphics design, planning, operations, transportation, logistics, and legal to mass produce our creations.
How does a food scientist develop a new food product?
Product development starts with an idea. Sometimes that idea is a response to industry trends. (Sriracha anyone?) Sometimes the idea must achieve a company’s strategy to launch a new or improved line. (For example, “cleaner labels” have been a major push for many large food companies in the last few years.) Sometimes the idea comes from a consumer complaint, which results in a product’s re-formulation. Sometimes the idea requires the application of new technology or equipment, and sometimes the idea is a simple line extension for a food company.
What happens next?
As a product idea takes shape, the food scientist goes to work! It could involve an individual scientist or a team.
- They research potential flavor combinations, ingredient function, ingredient costs and quality, grading and standard of identity regulations, stability requirements and more. They must stay ahead of industry trends, help source sometimes-hard-to-find ingredients, and re-formulate for cost reductions or other constraints. These are just some of the goals a food scientist must deliver for a saleable product that will attract consumers.
- Food scientists work in a Research and Development (R&D) lab to develop their food formulas. Development might take a few days or a couple of years. A formula is like a good recipe – every ingredient and processing step has a function and everything must work together. And, everything must be replicable.
- A lot of testing (and re-testing) accompanies product development. The physical and chemical properties are tested and tweaked by the food scientist. Ultimately the product must look and taste good, AND must meet legal and safety regulations for the product’s entire shelf life. (Sometimes that’s the hardest part! It’s easy to make a product look and taste good, but making it look and taste great over the product’s entire shelf life can be a challenge. Think about your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe…what if those cookies had to set on your shelf for several weeks? Would those cookies still look good and taste the same?)
- After the food scientist decides the formula meets all required criteria, the product is given to sensory panels for evaluation. Sometimes panelists are trained evaluators, and sometimes they are average consumers. The panel will give feedback about the product, and the food scientist will use that information to adjust the formula.
- When the formula is “perfected,” the food scientist takes it to the production floor where it can be manufactured on a larger scale. Scaling up may not be easy, so the food scientist works with the production team to troubleshoot and devise a solution. Sometimes this means the product must go back to the R&D lab for additional tweaks.
Is this the job ALL food scientists do?
No! A degree in food science could prepare someone for many roles. The above example portrays a food scientist/product developer’s job for a company that manufactures products. Other food scientists work in quality control or quality assurance, where they develop and implement procedures and processes that help make food products safe and of consistent quality. Some work in microbiology, where they test the stability of the product and help mitigate spoilage microorganisms or foodborne pathogens. Some work with chefs and culinary experts to find creative ways to use the product differently, maybe as an ingredient in new recipes. Some work in engineering, where they design and develop better processes to produce the product more efficiently. Some food scientists work closely with marketing, trends, and consumer panels to better understand consumer expectations.
The food industry is a diverse and ever-changing field, bursting with opportunity for raw commodities and finished food products. From the farmgate to your dinner plate, food scientists can be found throughout an ingredient’s journey.
So, do food scientists just pump food full of chemicals to make it look good?
Unfortunately, food scientists have endured a bad rap the last few years. True, today’s packaged food may contain food additives on the label, perhaps some preservatives, coloring, sweeteners, etc. True, some of these additives are synthetic. However, as consumers we must remember that even today, safe, affordable food is not accessible to all consumers. It’s the job of a food scientist to make food safe, appealing, and accessible for a diverse consumer group!
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