What does a food scientist actually do?
I recently received a great question from a reader requesting advice on which majors to pick for college, and how food science and nutrition science relate. To help others who may be interested in turning their love of food into a career, I’ve offered my advice below.
The field of food science is actually relatively new, and was borne out of the need for practical applications of science in industry. It is generally only offered at select, land-grant universities that have a focus on agriculture. Current programs are relatively small, but always increasing.
Food science is a great way to apply different disciplines such as chemistry, biology, microbiology, biochemistry, engineering, and math. And, because everyone has to eat, no matter what, it’s a pretty solid career choice.
If you have concerns about sustainable agriculture, world hunger, GMOs, or even ingredient choices, you can make a difference by choosing this career path.
Food science is often confused with careers such as dietetics or culinary. However, these careers are distinctly different from those of a food scientist.
For example, to become a dietitian, one must pass a certification exam and complete a one year internship. A dietitian would spend time working with patients to meet their dietary needs by crafting specific meal plans and helping to teach food preparation. Chefs learn techniques to create delicious dishes and how to run a business. They often innovate with new flavors and ingredients. Food scientists focus on the science behind the food. How can it be kept safe? How can it be produced at least cost? How can it be packaged to ensure a long shelf life?
Every day, as needs evolve and change, the lines between these three disciplines are blurred. To be successful in the food industry, one must possess knowledge of healthy food, trending cuisines, and how to produce the food on a large scale. Many companies are now looking to hire culinoligists , those who have studied both food science and culinary arts. I, myself, have dual degrees in Food Science and Nutrition Science.
But what jobs does this actually translate to? Below I have compiled a list of a variety of career paths available in the industry, based on your interests.
The job titles listed here fall into a few main categories:
- Research & Development: Product developers, food technologists, food scientists, and application technologists support the R&D department to drive innovation and create new food products or optimize existing ones. They work in collaboration with many other teams to ensure successful product launches.
- Production: The production team, including line operators, shift leaders, and supervisors, are responsible for producing a high quality product as fast as possible. They operate the equipment and package the product for shipping.
- Quality Control: This function is responsible for maintaining brand image and producing a high quality project. Quality control technicians or managers may work directly in the plant, overseeing daily operations, or they may work in a lab conducting testing. They also work with other functions to implement any new products or product changes.
- Food Safety: Food safety specialists are needed to write Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) or Preventive Controls plans to ensure food meets minimum standards and is safe for consumption. Written plans must be in place to document safety measures taken and prepare for the event of a recall. These positions may include a team of microbiologists, quality inspectors, and sanitation. Microbiologists may test the plant environment, ingredients, or finished product for microorganisms. Sanitation teams often work in collaboration with production to ensure equipment is clean and safe.
- Sales & Marketing: Food has to be sold, whether that be restaurants, consumers, or other businesses. It is often helpful to have a technical background when working in sales so you can better communicate about the product and any technical challenges with your customers.
- Regulatory/Food Law: Foods must be labeled properly in order to convey product, allergen, and nutrition information. Foods may not be misbranded or adulterated, and are subject to recall if found to be unfit for human consumption. Regulatory managers ensure all requirements for the law are met.
- Supply Chain: Logistics are very important in getting food where it needs to go. Supply chain teams may work to source ingredients or foods and ensure plants have enough inventory.
- Academia: If you love school, why not make a career out of it? You can also be a professor or researcher that investigates hypotheses and teaches the next generation of up-and-coming food scientists.
The average starting salary for a college graduate with a BS in Food Science is currently about $56,000 per year (in the United States), and many programs boast a 100% job placement rate.
What questions do you have about food science careers or programs? Do you have any advice to share with others?
Here are a few great resources, if you’re interested in learning more.