Food Science - What is it and what do Food Scientists do?

What is food science?

Most of the time when I tell people that I am a food scientist their first question is “Oh, like nutrition”? Well, yes and no. There is overlap between the two and it’s important for food scientists to have an understanding of nutrition in order to formulate products. But there is a lot more to it than that. Along with nutrition, we need to know the science of the food itself. It’s a combination of nutrition, chemistry, engineering, microbiology, sensory, and regulatory.

The best way I have ever heard to describe the difference between food science and nutritional science is this:

Food Science happens BEFORE you consume a food.

Nutritional Science happens AFTER you consume a food.

So in simple terms, a food scientist formulates what you are going to eat and a nutritional scientist focuses on what that food does in your body.

While there are many jobs a Food Science major can pursue, the actual job title of Food Scientist is typically associated with being a Product Developer, so that’s what I will be discussing in this post. Almost any packaged product you buy at a grocery was developed by a food scientist. A lot goes on behind the scenes before that package hits the shelves.

Food Science and Nutrition

As the industry moves towards natural and functional foods, food scientists need to understand the role of vitamins, proteins, caffeine, probiotics, sweeteners, etc. This is how we can formulate products that meet consumer expectations. We need to be able to go on a customer visit and explain the benefits of our product for a consumer.

Examples: If a product needs to be Keto, we are ensuring it has the right ingredients and targets the desired macronutrients. If the product needs a plant based protein, we need to understand which proteins to pair together to provide all essential amino acids.

Food Science and Chemistry

Chemistry is in all foods and product developers need to have an understanding of the chemistry in the products they are working on. Certain customers will have specific requirements regarding fat levels, added sugar, color, foam stability etc. To achieve the desired outcome and develop good products, food scientists need to use chemistry.

Examples: When bread is baked there is Maillard browning which gives it a brown crust. The difference between rock candy and a lollipop is the crystallization of sugar molecules and how quickly the sugar syrup is cooled below the glass transition temperature. Shelf stable dairy products need certain buffers to stabilize the pH and prevent coagulation.

Food Science and Sensory

This one is pretty obvious. There’s no point in trying to bring a food product to market that people don’t want to consume. The formulator needs to be able to taste products themselves while formulating and once they are comfortable with the product, sensory panels can be conducted with a larger group. The panels can determine if a product moves forward in the process or still needs work.

Examples: Food scientists need to understand what ingredients can be added to improve mouthfeel, sweetness, flavor, aroma, etc. To a consumer, vanilla is vanilla, lemon is lemon, and coffee is coffee. But there are actually hundreds of iterations of all flavors, each with their own nuances. It's important to choose the right one.

Food Science Microbiology

Food safety is critical. There are some microbes you want in your food like lactobacillus bulgaricus in yogurt or Penicillium in blue cheese. And there are some microbes you don’t want in your food like clostridium botulinum in canned corn or Aspergillus (mold) on bread. In high risk products there needs to be a critical control point or kill step to make sure that harmful microorganisms can’t grow and make people sick.

Examples: For desirable microbes, a food scientist can conduct analytical testing on food to make sure that they are present at the right levels. For harmful microbes food scientists can work to establish a heat process such as pasteurization in milk, retorting cans, and irradiating spices to make foods safe. Water activity needs to be controlled to prevent mold growth on things like bakery products.

Food Science and Engineering

The engineering side of food science is typically related to scale up in the manufacturing plant. If something is created in the lab, it’s important to work with operations and determine the set up is feasible to create the product on a large scale.

Examples: For liquids, they need to be the right viscosity to properly flow through piping. For blended products, blend speed and time need to be determined to achieve product uniformity.

Food Science and Regulatory

Regulatory involves things like nutrition facts panels, ingredient statement, allergens, and certification such as organic. These are all important for food scientists to understand to stay in compliance with the FDA regulations as well as regulations of specific manufacturing plants.

Examples: A nut-free facility that wants to create a hazelnut flavored product will need to work with a flavor supplier and obtain documentation saying that the flavor is allergen free. The nutrition facts panel regulations were updated in the US which affects serving sizes and %DV of certain vitamins and minerals among other things.

There is a lot of work that goes into the foods and beverages you buy and consume each day. Next time you’re at the grocery store, think about the number of packaged goods available and all of the food scientists that brought them to you! I’d love to hear any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!

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