The Future is Ripe for Food Scientists The Buzz


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.

Someone even looks at that Twinkie and wonders, "Can I make it fight disease? Can I add ingredients to it to make it healthier?"

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 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. They work very closely with the marketing people. But the success ratio is very low for new products. 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.

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

While traditional fields in food science still exist, there are new trends making headway. One of the new trends is functional foods. 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. In fact, today's demand for healthier food has opened a world of opportunities. Just ask professor Doug Goff.

Goff and his research team have fortified milkshakes, puddings, ice creams and other dairy products with dietary fibre made from soy and flaxseed to make them healthier.

Goff's discovery is one example of how a food scientist can take an everyday food and make it better.

Mark McLellan, dean for research and director of Food Science at the University of Florida, gives another example. He cites recent studies that prove folic acid in a pregnant woman's diet decreases spinal cord defects in babies. As a result, food scientists are now creating foods higher in folic acid, he says.

Food scientists are also involved in creating foods capable of fighting disease. "Food and nutrition have always overlapped, but increasingly so as we seek diet-related help in combating metabolic diseases, such as cardiovascular and heart diseases, diabetes, some cancers and obesity," Goff says.

Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen is a food science professor. She predicts the demand for functional foods will continue. "And this will create jobs in the government research arm."

The New World of Food Safety

Another growing sector in the field of food science is food safety. Today's news is filled with stories of foods being tainted with bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

The role of a food scientist is to ensure that the foods we eat are safe. This includes foods made in North America as well as those made overseas, says McLellan. "Consumers are used to a cleaner food supply," he says.

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.

Unfortunately, bioterrorism is a reality, says McLellan. Tomorrow's food scientists will play a lead role in ensuring the safety of our food, he says.

"Regulations, especially food labeling, are increasingly important." That's according to Dr. Barbara Blakistone, director of scientific affairs of the National Fisheries Institute. "Food safety now has several aspects. It's not just microbiology but also anti-terrorism and/or anti-counterfeiting. These areas are not new, but have taken on new importance."

That cliche "think globally" really applies today, she adds. Food scientists are not just making food for North America. Canadians and Americans have a myriad of ethnic backgrounds that must be considered, and food companies prepare food for international consumption.

An Untapped Field

While opportunities abound, many food scientists often stumble on their career by chance. Many university students tend to find it by way of elective, as was the case with Hayley Rutherford.

When Rutherford entered university, little did she know she would become a food scientist. At the time, she didn't even know that such a career existed.

Enrolled in an arts and science program, she took an elective on food engineering and was hooked immediately. "I fell in love with food science," says the new graduate. She is now a second-year master's student and volunteers with a national institute of food science and technology as one of their national student affairs co-chairs.

Rutherford's relationship with food has changed since her studies began. "Everything I pick up at the grocery store has suddenly become a lesson. I can't buy a banana without wondering what gas atmosphere conditions it was transported under," she says.

"Once you're in the know, you can't escape food science. People have the right to safe, quality food and they have the right to understand exactly how it got to their table."

Rutherford looks forward to pursuing a lifelong career in the field. "Food science can take you many places because food touches every part of our society. The food science community in both academia and industry is full of awesome people with passion and imagination.

"And as an added bonus, you do a lot of interesting eating and eating free meals."

Valerie Massel took a similar path. The master's student in food science wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she started university. But when she looked into a food science program, she was intrigued by the interesting courses it offered, such as dairy science and food chemistry.

Massel feels confident about her future. "As living beings, we will always need food, and consumers are becoming more interested in what they eat, so I figured it would be a good industry with many job prospects."

Education and Beyond

To be most marketable, today's food scientists need at least a master's degree, says McLellan. He adds that topping that up with a minor in something like business, marketing or law, will offer a lot of potential for growth.

A master's in food science is also a portal to medical school, he says, as food scientists have an understanding of the science behind food and how it impacts human health.

"Food science has always been multidisciplinary," he says. "The need to be flexible is very important."

Today's food scientists work with a variety of sectors. For example, they may need to talk to someone in marketing about how to sell a product, to chemists about the structure of a food or to lawyers about the legal issues surrounding food safety. "This creates a very challenging matrix," McLellan says.

Blakistone also recommends a minor in another field, such as marketing and communications. "Give some serious thought to your minor. I think a minor in a completely different area will make you more employable and will increase your diversity of experiences."

The Seeds to Succeed

With so many choices, Massel is at the point where she must pick a path. "There are many sides to the food industry: bakery, dairy, meat, beverage, raw ingredients, processing, quality control, product development," Massel says. "I feel that the main challenge is deciding what area to focus on."

There are also different routes one can take to become a food scientist. "Food science remains an interdisciplinary field," says Blakistone. "Every day you will need to know some chemistry, biology, nutrition, microbiology and packaging. If you like the broad perspective, food science may be for you."

As long as we continue to buy food -- from vegetables to Twinkies -- the need for food scientists will never wane.

Links

Institute of Food Technologists
A scientific society of food scientists

Calorie Control Council
Background information on sugar and fat replacement ingredients

Food Marketing Institute
Bringing you news and information from the food industry

American Meat Science Association
Provides information to the food industry and the public

FoodSafety.gov
The gateway to food safety information provided by government agencies