If you have ever heard of “food scientists,” you might have wondered what they do exactly. I met my first food scientist at spa opening party. She worked for a well-known Dallas-based sour cream company and described her project as bettering the taste of their sour cream to stay ahead of their competitors. Simply put, to make their food tasty.
She worked at a lab bench with pipettes and beakers, wore a white lab coat, and did all the “science-y” things scientists did, but I could barely imagine the scene outside of the kitchen. From my undergraduate research experience, food was a definite “no-no” to have around the lab bench, much less eating the research projects. In fact, the food scientist ensures the nation’s food quality using chemistry, biochemistry, engineering, and microbiology, whether it be by striving for optimum nutritional quality and safety or the best color and texture a food product can achieve. Whether we realize it or not, every person in the United States is affected by the food scientist’s fruits of labor when we enjoy a slice refreshing watermelon in the summer, help make pumpkin pie during the holiday season, or simply live our everyday lives eating “normal” food.
Food scientists can specialize in different fields. Some work for the packaged and processed food industry to figure out how many calories per serving are in snacks, research the best packaging material and shape or temperature appropriate for storing packed meals, and determine the best ways to prepare shelf-stable meals (for example, nuke it in the microwave for 2 minutes, then let it sit for 1 minute). Things can get really fancy too; nanotechnology is sometimes used to detect contaminants or unwanted byproducts in foods on an atomic scale! There are a lot of little atoms inside a Cheetos cheese puff!
Before things get packaged into pretty boxes or make it to the grocery shelf, food scientists also work from the roots. Some food scientists conduct agricultural research on the soil composition and treatment needed to grow the ideal crop. The corn we see in the grocery store did not used to be so robust with all its juicy kernels. It began with cross-breeding with gamagrass (a bunch grass) and then back with maize to make the corn we eat today. There are quite a few varieties of corn, including dent, flint, flour, sweet, pod, and waxy corns (1). Search “corn development” on Google, and one can find an enormous number of sites about the prime weather, soil conditions, and sunlight to grow these golden (and even white or purple) ears, along with harvesting times and pesticide use. Food scientists conduct studies and provide the general population with their findings and harvested products. As consumers, we can count on their work and look forwards to slapping a pat of butter on roasted corn every summer. There has also been some research and development for making corn ethanol for fuel.
There are scientists that specialize in animal food science and study domestic farm animals. How did Wagyu or Kobe beef get so famous? Food scientists were at work, experimenting with breeding stock for the perfect fat marbling and full flavor. They explore the animals’ growth and development, the nutrition for and of their animals, and even genetic diseases and how to handle animal waste. Thanks to them, I now buy only wild salmon (versus farm-raised) because the salmon that swim free in the sea come with fewer calories, less saturated fat and organic pollutants that can be linked to cancers, immunosuppressive effects, and even Type 2 Diabetes than those confined in fish farms. (2) And with all those delicious sugary foods I eat (thanks food scientists for making sweets so darn tasty), I definitely need all the help I can get there!
Despite their effect on countless industries and their importance, the term “food scientist” still remains an unfamiliar term. Only a handful of undergraduate universities, like Texas A&M and Cornell University, currently provide programs for the Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science. However, the projected growth for this occupation is estimated to be 9%, which is the same as other fields (3). Next time you walk into a restaurant, grocery store, or even the pantry, think of the food scientists and appreciate their role in affecting our food.
Editor: Ashley Lakoduk