It sounds facetious to state that food science is the study of food. But that’s an over-simplification. It’s a science that encompasses the disciplines of biology, chemistry, biochemistry, botany, plus food engineering and analysis.
Food scientists perform a critical role in developing and maintaining our food supply through the use of the aforestated sciences. They work closely with food science technicians as they conduct research and experiments in food and nutrients. This may lead to safer means of preserving or processing foods. Another duty includes the inspection of food products prior to shipment to ensure the food meets company and governmental standards.
Food scientists who specialize in research are split into two groups:
- Basic Research– these scientists are interested in improving the human understanding of the chemical processes that cause crops and livestock to grow. Their goal is to learn as much as they can, so that other scientists can take their research and develop things that will be beneficial to others. Since their work is not directly profitable, their research relies on financial support from the government, universities, and private firms.
- Applied Research– scientists who do applied research often use the studies conducted by basic researchers, and apply them to real products. For instance, a food scientist who works for a company that makes cookies may be able to improve the quality of the ingredients by adapting the research performed by a basic researcher.
A minimum of a bachelor’s degree is required to work in this field. At this level, the student will be instructed in the methods and concepts of food science. A typical Bachelor of Science in Food Science curriculum covers:
- Introductory courses in chemistry, microbiology, food processing and preservation
- Food Safety and Quality: hazard analysis, sanitation, pest management and quality assurance
- Cereal products
- Diary products: identifying defects and causes
- Microbiology lab work
- Sensory evaluation of food and wine: techniques in aroma, flavor, texture, and appearance
- Food chemistry lab
- Food toxicology
This is just a sampling of courses at the baccalaureate level.
The Institute of Food Technology (IFT) lists more than 40 universities in the United States with master’s degree programs in food science. Typical courses at the master’s level are:
- Food proteins and enzymes
- Food laws
- Scientific writing
- Instrumental analysis: spectrometry, sterilization, chromatography, and radioisotope techniques
- Advanced food safety
- Advanced food microbiology
- Principles of Sustainability
- Advances in cereal science and technology
Wherever your decision lies with respect to a college or university selection, it should be one approved by the IFT. For undergraduate and graduate degrees, the IFT Higher Education Review Board has determined which learning institutions meet their Education Standards.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2013 that the median annual salary was $65,340 for Food Scientists and Technicians. The job growth rate/change is projected to be 9% or 3,600 jobs through 2022. The employment total was 15,010 in May 2013 with the highest number (2,300) in “Scientific Research and Development Services,” according to the BLS. The states with the highest number employed in this field are: California, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The highest concentration per thousand jobs is in Minnesota with 2,060 employed with a median annual wage of $74,540 as of 2013.
This is a profession for the scientific-minded due to the involvement of many sciences, particularly chemistry and biology. The study of food may take the scientist from the office, to the field, to the laboratory, and back to the office to prepare reports. Contemplate that as you munch on a bowl of cereal, since a lot of scientific effort has gone into that box.