I remember when I was in high school, the Guidance Counselor who taught me a course in “family life”, I think it was, gave us the assignment to go to the library to research different careers and to come back to share what we wanted to become in life. I remember going to the library and finding a very thick red encyclopedia of careers. Flipping through, I saw the word “Food Scientist”. Food Scientist? It sounded interesting and so I read about what they did and how to become one. I went back to the class and shared that I wanted to become a Food Scientist. The Guidance Counselor was not very encouraging, she commented instead of how skinny I was. Perhaps she thought that a Food Scientist was somewhat of a Nutritionist and that I did not look like someone who could credibly lead a career helping people to become healthy when I apparently did not look healthy. It still upset me that she said that.I think we should be careful of our words. They stick and can do great damage if we are not careful.

Anyway, that did not deter me from wanting to become a Food Scientist. I pursued it anyway. Today, I have an undergraduate degree in food science and a PhD in Cereal Science. My research focuses on the properties of edible bean flours. If you go to my Wright State profile page, you will see what projects I am working on and some links to research papers in my area of interest.  

When I tell someone that I am a Food Scientist I often get a quizzical look. So what’s that they ask, either silently or out loud. OK, so how do you answer that question if you are asked? Well, the short “smart aleck” answer that I get from some students is that it is the “the science of food”. I know, that is not very helpful. You can explain further by saying, “food science is the application of scientific principles in the production of food for consumers”. Consumers desire foods that are healthy, convenient, safe, and tasty. In order to meet these needs, a knowledge of food components and how they interact with each other is needed. For example you may notice that when you slice an apple it turns brown. This is due a phenomenon called enzymatic browning. When certain compounds in apples, called phenols are exposed to an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase in the presence of oxygen, they turn to a brown compound called melanin. However, the activity of polyphenol oxidases can be controled by dipping the apples in lemon juice or any other food liquid that is acidic. The acidity changes the pH of the apples, which helps to deactivate the enzymes.

So the solution to the problem of the color change is to changing the pH or acidity. However, there are other ways to control the browning effect. For example by dipping the apples quickly in hot water to “kill” the enzymes, or vacuum-packing the apples to remove the presence of oxygen. There are other solutions to the problem too, but my point is, you will not be able to find the solution if you don’t know the science behind what is going on. So that’s what food scientists do. They study the science of food so that they can use that knowledge to solve problems and create new ideas and products to meet consumer needs.

Food scientists work mainly in food manufacturing companies, but may also work in food service companies such as big hotels, restaurants and fast food chains. They work in private research laboratories, government laboratories, regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). And of course, some like me work in universities teaching and conducting new research.

If you are working in food manufacturing, you will be likely working either in production, quality control, or research. Qualifications for these jobs vary. People with only a high school education generally make up the bulk of the line production operation. These people are involved in cleaning, washing, cutting, sorting, filling, packing and general food handling. Above these employees are supervisors and managers who require a knowledge of food science, food processing, food microbiology, food chemistry, food engineering and food regulations. This knowledge generally comes with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in food science or related science such as agricultural science, chemistry, biology, microbiology, biochemistry, or engineering.  The combination of science knowledge and management/leadership skills is always a big advantage.

Food scientists working in production are responsible for making sure that foods are produced efficiently, and according to customer specifications. Therefore, they monitor the production process and make adjustments as needed. If something goes wrong, they have to use their basic knowledge of science to figure out why and how to correct it. For example, the food scientist may realize that bead coming out of the oven is too dark, even though the same baking time and temperature was used. What could have caused this? It could be too much sugar added to the formula. It could be that fermentation time was too long. It could also be too little salt added. The problem may even be due to a higher heat-transfer rate from the baking pan if a new pan baking pan is being used. So, which one of these factors are causing the problem? Is it a combination of them? Possibly. The food scientist will have to figure it out and decide how the problem must be fixed.  

Food scientists working in quality will work with production to make sure that all the quality requirements are met using various observations and quality control checks. For example, does the juice have the right sweetness? Does the yogurt have the right amount of acidity? Does the bread have the right texture? By evaluating these attributes, food scientists can recommend or make adjustments in production to meet the right specs.

Food scientists in research are responsible for designing and developing new products. For example coming up with a new convenient packaging or product that provides a health benefit or a unique flavor. This job is fun. I spent about five years working at a food research institute several years ago right after getting my associate degree in agriculture. I remember developing a mushroom jam, mushroom jelly, mushroom pickle and mushroom soup mix. Some of these products sounds crazy, I know, but they actually tasted good.

If you have a love for science. If you are curious and like solving puzzles while working with people in a challenging and collaborative environment, then you should consider a career in food science. As you learn more about food science in this course, I hope it will spark an interest in you to pursue it as a career. Good luck.

Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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