The Future is Ripe for Food Scientists

What do food science students study? Let's start with a Twinkie.

Someone, somewhere had to design that Twinkie. Someone had to find a food people would like, then design it. They had to make the cake spongy and the filling creamy. If it's too dry, no one will eat it. If it's too wet, it will seep through the cake.

And have you ever noticed that every Twinkie is exactly alike? You never get one that's a little more brown than others, or has less filling, or is undercooked. Someone makes sure every Twinkie looks and tastes exactly like every other Twinkie.

Then someone has to figure out the nutritional value of the Twinkie -- such as it is -- so they can put it on the package. And someone has to design the production unit so you can make thousands upon thousands of identical Twinkies safely -- without bacteria, mold or any other kind of spoilage.

Then someone has to figure out the best way to preserve Twinkies so that they last a long time on the shelf.

Every one of these people is a food scientist.

What They Do

Any food on store shelves arrived there with the help of food scientists. They design foods, create production lines, oversee health and safety of foods and figure out how to package them. Even foods like vegetables and meat need food scientists to make sure they get to your table fresh and unspoiled.

"They do a range of things," says Al Wagner. He is a professor of food science at the Institute of Food Science and Technology at Texas A and M University.

"They do research and development where they develop new products, or improve existing products." That can mean designing a Twinkie, making a low-fat Twinkie, or designing a Twinkie with extra vitamin A in it.

Developing new food products may sound like the fun part of being a food scientist, but it's one of the toughest.

"It's a long tedious trip, and you have to work very closely with the marketing people. The success ratio is very low for new products," says Wagner. So after months or even years of development, a food scientist's new formulation may fail in the marketplace.

The next thing they do is quality control (QC) or quality assurance (QA). This means making sure every product that goes out the door meets the standards. It's the QA people who make sure every Twinkie looks and tastes exactly like every other Twinkie.

"If you buy a Big Mac in San Francisco, it's exactly the same as a Big Mac in Paducah, Kentucky," says Jim Eilers. He is a food scientist in Chicago.

"The reason it's exactly the same is that a food scientist has figured out an exact process for grinding the meat, what to do with it, what temperature to cook it at, and how to package it and ship it. So every ingredient in every Big Mac is the same wherever you go."

Part of QC means making sure the production line is putting out safe foods. The food scientist has to make sure food isn't contaminated, even accidentally. He or she constantly tests products as they come off the line.

Food scientists figure out how to produce foods in mass quantities. They work with engineers to create a production process that is fast and guarantees safety and freshness. They also have to figure out the best ways to package the food so it stays fresh and untainted all the way to your table.

Hot Areas in the Field

Some areas in food science are particularly hot. "For a while it seemed that replacing ingredients -- the whole low-fat, low-calorie end -- was the growth area," says John Vanderstoep. He is a professor of food science.

But Vanderstoep isn't sure if this trend will continue or fade away.

Angela Dansby of the Institute of Food Technologists still sees this area as big. "Sugar and fat replacers are hot right now." Vanderstoep sees another area as up and coming. "We are seeing an explosion in nutraceuticals. Nutraceuticals looks at naturally occurring substances that might impart some health benefits, like ginseng. It's also called functional foods."

"[The field of] functional foods is huge," agrees Dansby. "They're looking for foods that have health-related effects, and these types of foods are being researched to determine what the effects are."

You've already probably seen functional foods on store shelves -- products that boast of beta carotene or other substances that may improve health, lower cancer rates or improve your cholesterol levels.

Food scientists are seeking to test and substantiate these claims, then develop foods with these substances in them.

Two other areas are growing for food scientists. One is bioengineered foods -- creating foods by splicing genes from different organisms together.

"The gene jockeys are involved in the process," says Vanderstoep. "But when you look at what's involved and what you want to modify in the food, you need the food scientist who will work with the gene jockey to develop new foods."

The last hot field is food safety. It's become a huge issue on the heels of salmonella and E. coli breakouts. New, powerful strains of bacteria are causing food scientists to search for new ways of handling and processing foods to make sure it's safe to eat. There is also new concern about possible terrorist attacks on the food supply.

The Numbers

Frances Katz of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) says that the job outlook for food scientists depends on a number of things. But there will probably be a steady demand for those in the field.

"Most of the people who are members of our student association find jobs pretty quickly, so it looks pretty good. It is a good, solid field."

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) show that in 2006, there were 8,770 people employed as food scientists and technologists in the U.S. They made a mean average salary of $59,260.

Advice from the Experts

"Take all the science courses," advises Wagner. "Chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biology and microbiology to start. Then you'll get into food toxicology, food analysis, food chemistry, processing and packaging."

You'll also have to decide on your area of interest. "Do you want to go into pure science, or do you want to go into industry? And then you have to choose what area of industry -- cereals, meat, horticulture." This can influence which school you choose. You'll have to decide how much schooling you want. Wagner says for quality assurance and production, a bachelor's degree in science is fine. "But if you want to go into R and D, all those people have master's or PhDs. Academics are all PhDs."

Gene Wissakowsky is vice-president of research and development for a food science company. He thinks a bachelor's degree in science may not be enough anymore. "In today's market, [it] is very similar to having a high school degree in my parent's time. Basically, you'll end up a technician who works on the bench."

Get a science degree so you have a grounding in science, then get an MBA so you'll understand the ins and outs of the food industry. Food scientists do work for companies that manufacture food.

"There are very few positions that are pure research," says Eilers. "The advantage of understanding the business environment will make your job a lot easier."

Conclusion

Everyone eats. Unlike some other professions, the need for food scientists will never wane as long as we all go out and buy food from other people, from vegetables to Twinkies.

"It's a pretty steady career," says Vanderstoep. "We'll always want foods that are good, safe and affordable. It'll be a challenge forever. It's a very good career choice."

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