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
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.
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
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."