What is Food Science? A Beginner’s Guide

In this article, I want to talk about what is food science, how to become a food scientist, and why it’s one of the best fields of study in the world.

Some context

I graduated with a degree in Food Science at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo.

After that, I moved to Phoenix where I knew absolutely no one, I’ve met a lot of new people and in most situations, I’ve had to say what I do for a living. I’ve tried things like my actual vague job title and this was: food processing technologist! What the heck was that? Then I changed to: “I work with food” but I’ve felt most comfortable saying what I’ve studied: I’m a food scientist.

In most situations in my life, whenever I tell someone I’m a food scientist, they give me some strange look and tell me what the heck that is. I’m sure my colleagues will nod in agreement that this has happened once in their life.

I hope in this article, to really bring a brief introduction on what is Food Science is and how you can remember this profession.

If you google “Food Science”, the Institute of Food Technologist writes up this definition:

Food science is the study of the physical, biological, and chemical makeup of food; and the concepts underlying food processing. Food technology is the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe food.

What this means is that every single item of food or beverage you buy in a grocery store has been influenced by a food scientist. I find that this is honestly the best explanation of being a food scientist.

The best way I can explain the benefits of a food scientist is that we try to make food last as long as possible without it causing harm to you or have it taste awful.

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We are indeed responsible for adding preservatives to soda but we are also responsible for finding a way NOT to use preservatives, while also lowering the calories.

We are responsible for pumping ethylene oxide into apples to make them grow bigger but also responsible for making sure organic, non-GMO apples get to the grocery store safe and sound.

We are the ones who make splenda and stevia palatable and how to make soda taste like either root beer or bacon.

We are the ones who make your protein bars have chicory root fiber and the ones who make your Cheetos puffy or spicy… or whatever you desire.

We can create bars out of crickets or milk out of vegetables or meat out of plants.

We are the ones who make sure you don’t get sick drinking juice or prevent bugs in your bread.

And whether you love these things or hate these things, we’re just doing our job: to feed the world.

And we will need your help accomplishing this.

To become a food scientist, you can either get a job at a facility that deals with food or major in food science at a university. Most people who claim themselves to be food scientists have food science degrees. I would argue that if you are a food technologist, whatever your educational background may be, which I think is a confusing title in itself, you can call yourself a food scientist.

Food Science is a niche profession and an even nichier major.  Most who join the major don’t really know what it is and quite a few people switch majors right away once they find out that you might end up in a factory your whole life.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, there are jobs in food science that may require you to be in a factory and as much as we don’t imagine the glamour of being in a factory making granola bars all day, you sometimes realize just how valuable that job experience has been. Speaking from experience, I sort of enjoyed the factory life for a year or two and you actually make quite a bit of money because of how much overtime you make if you’re into that.

In fact, most of the time, the factory life will highly out pay a product development job but the tradeoff is a stable work/life balance.

Besides that point, I really want to dive in about all aspects on food science.

So here are three common questions I’ve gotten as a food scientist. I’m sure a lot of my friends who are also food scientists get this a lot.

First Question: Where can you study food science?

Food Science is usually offered in land grant universities or universities that have a department of agriculture. There are exceptions to both situations. For example, the University of Arizona does not have a food science program even though it is a land-grant university and private institutions like Chapman University have started offering food science in their curriculum.

For a list of accredited food science universities, IFT has a great list. 

Food Science is decently Chemistry based and a lot of the focus will be in Biochemistry because you are dealing with macromolecules such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins on the daily. The more you really understand basic chemistry, the more food science starts to make sense.

Probably the second most important class to focus on is microbiology as the most important part in the industry is to understand how to prevent bad stuff like salmonella from growing. Pro tip, it’s mainly the amount of water and how much heat it takes to kill the things.

Most curriculums offer a buffet of professions including Quality Assurance, Food Safety, Sensory Analysis, Food Chemistry, Food Analysis, Food Law, Food Engineering, Packaging, Processing, and Product Development. Each one of these subjects act as kind of job orientation and throughout your food career, you can kind of choose which subject you would like to follow. For example, you can choose to be Quality Assurance Manager, a Sensory Scientist, a Flavor Chemist, or a Product Developer all with a BS degree.

So some of these sound weird, right?

Let me explain some examples of the subjects the universities teach. We also have interviews with people on all of these subjects on our podcast:

Quality Assurance: Where we make sure that the processes and ingredients we use to make food are in compliance with the government and with the consumer. You will learn what’s really needed in the food industry to make sure your food is consistent and edible.

Food Safety: Basically how to react and prevent food outbreaks. We hear all the time on how E.coli or Listeria can cause massive recalls. Food Safety classes are designed on how we can keep our food safe, which is the most important thing you have to think about when making food and distributing it to millions. Food outbreaks can kill a food company.

Sensory Analysis: Literally a class where you eat things all day. Applying statistics, you will learn about how to find if results between different tasting products are significant or not. We use sensory analysis a lot in the food industry because people have to actually like the taste of the food that is being sold. We also use sensory to replace ingredients, for example, if this organic version can match the original version, or if this new flavor is better than this old one.

Food Chemistry: Basically applying what you know about biochemistry and using it on food. In this class, you understand how things get thick when you add flour to soup, why you should coat biscuits with oil before packaging, and why some sugars are super sticky and why some are rock solid.

Food Analysis: This is a cool class, but I’d say is very niche in the industry. Here, you understand how to use machines and chemicals to break down food to its basic components and measure its content. This is used extensively with nutrition labeling on your little nutrition facts on every food product.

Food Law: A dry subject, but very important; Here you will learn about the FDA and USDA as well as knowing the regulations it takes to slap on a label for food products. Things you would never notice has to be on the package such as: net weight, manufacturing date, and what fonts to use on the label.

Food Engineering: The most confusing topic to discuss with your friends because it makes people believe you’re really smart when it’s basically just moving water around mathematically. It’s basically using very basic engineering concepts to help you do your job. It’s meant for you to be the middleman between the scientist saying how much water needs to be in this bottle and the engineer/mechanic to adjust the machines to do such a thing.

Some examples of applying food engineering is: measuring the expansion of water when frozen in orange juice concentrates, how much you have to adjust the amount of water when switching to a more watery syrup, and how many ingredients you need to add back in when your professor accidentally spills part of your incomplete mixture of barbeque sauce.

Packaging: Why do we package food? To keep it safe, contained, and as a wicked marketing tool. You also learn about how paper, glass, metal and plastic are made and why they are so versatile.

Processing: Here you get to learn how we can create 10,000 lbs of granola bars a day. Basically, learning about all of the necessary machines to make a lot of food. In basic classes, you learn how to dehydrate, refrigerate, and pretty much boil water but in more advanced classes, we learn the science of how freeze drying, microwaves, and extrusion works.

Product Development: You make your own product using all of the skills you learned in your previous class.

So you will also take some microbiology, statistics, calculus, organic chemistry, biology, nutrition, and physics courses. You know, the fun stuff.

There are also plenty of electives you can take. I’ve taken an awesome bakery science course and my friends have taken things like fermentation, meat processing, winemaking, and cheese making as one of their electives.

If you don’t like science, food science might not be for you. But if you truly love food, then you will find this a very rewarding profession.

Second Question: What’s the difference between food science and nutrition?

A lot of my food science friends mock this question when their aunt questions them: “Oh, food science? Is that like nutrition?”

On my first day of orientation to the food science major, the room was shared with food science students and nutrition students. Even before orientation, I didn’t know the difference either what the professor said has resonated with me ever since:

Food Science is farm to fork, Nutrition is afterward.

In other words, Food Science is before we eat the food, Nutrition is what the food does to the body.

Food Science includes but is not limited to growing, storing, processing, distributing, packaging,

From apples to apple sauce, to apple strudel at your hotel breakfast, those have been inspected and blessed by the science of safety, quality, sensory, and processing

But don’t get me wrong, these two professions are getting ever intermingled and every year it seems like the line blurs more and more.

You see, us food scientists need to listen to nutritionists to make our products more attractive and more healthy. That’s the trend nowadays: food needs to be healthy. No matter what.

In my situation, I work for a popular health and wellness company and I talk to nutritionists daily to make sure my protein bars are low in sugar and high in protein while still not decaying rapidly, turning as hard as a rock, and tastes great.

I also love talking to nutritionists about which and how much fiber I can use without causing the next sewage blockage of 2016.

And again, most nutritionists understand that certain things are needed to make our food taste better or last longer and I suggest really talking to someone who is actually a dietician the next time you hear a food is bad for you. Not your aunt. Unless your aunt is a nutritionist.

Most bloggers who tout the media on stuff used in the food industry don’t really have the credentials to really stake claims. I’m not naming names, but you see it all the time on social media how a blogger can have such a sphere of influence, they can convince the biggest companies to not put stuff in their stuff.

As an old professor used to say, “It’s not the poison, it’s the dose”. You can overdose on water, sugar, caffeine, and aspartame but in literally scientifically proven amounts that is backed by 100s of studies, they are ok in the recommended doses. There are millions of tests that the government mandates that tells people what’s safe and what’s not safe and in what amounts.

Third Question: Do you get free food every day in your job?

Short answer: yes

Long answer: As long as you don’t work in a microbiology lab or you’re allergic to peanuts in a peanut factory, you will get free food.

When I worked at a slaughterhouse for turkeys, I got a lot of free deli meat from the other plants. One time, I got steaks for a dollar a pound.

When I worked at a granola bar factory, I ate granola bars for breakfast every day.

My current job at a health and wellness company means I get free whey powder, pre-workout, and meal replacement bars. I don’t buy groceries.

I would say the best perk in a food-related job is the fact that you are guaranteed free food. It’s just how the industry works. Defects are going to be thrown away so you’re either going to get it for free or super cheap.

So the next time you meet a food scientist, tell them you know what they do.

The next time your cousin is choosing majors for college and you notice he loves food a lot, mention food science as a choice.

The next time you go to a grocery store, think about what goes in a food that uses good old fashion, science.

And I hope you find this article useful, and that you can join us in feeding the world.

2 thoughts on “What is Food Science? A Beginner’s Guide

  1. Kelly says:

    “next sewage blockage of 2016” omg.

  2. Bilal says:

    Thank you so much for sharing such a nice article with us.
    Keep sharing such articles.

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