8 Facts About Food Scientists

Food science.

It’s an all encompassing science that relates to many fields of research. It’s an interdisciplinary approach that uses physics, chemistry and other disciplines to study the nature of foods and the principles of food processing.

By understanding the fundamentals of food we can better understand and solve real-world problems. Those that study food science are food scientists and they are helping to figure out ways to feed our growing population, create more nutritious food and make our foods safer to eat.

1.   Food Scientists perform research

Food scientists apply scientific principles and engineering techniques to study the fundamental physical, chemical and biochemical nature of food and the principles of food processing. They look at all aspects of the food chain including:

  • Selection
  • Preservation
  • Processing
  • Packaging
  • Distribution

With these topics in mind food scientists develop scientific studies and research hypotheses to investigate the different aspects of food. Researchers might study the composition of foods, flavour chemistry, processing techniques, food sustainability, food safety and much more.

To conduct these studies food scientists must first secure funding for their research. This is done by preparing research proposals based on in-depth reviews of scientific literature. They look for gaps in research to study what hasn’t been explored before. Experiments are done with varying pieces of scientific equipment and in some cases they even test with human trials.

Using the collected data they will analyze it using statistical methods and computer software. Through analysis food scientists can see if their research hypothesis was valid or not. If the research is inconclusive they will need go back to the lab and perform more studies.

2.  Food Scientists follow the scientific method

The scientific method is an evidence based organizational process used by scientists to acquire knowledge about the world. The first step is to make observations and ask questions. One question a food scientist might ask is, “Does sugar melt differently depending on the speed that you mix it in when baking cookies?” Keeping in line with that example the food scientist would than create a null hypothesis stating that, “no changes are made to the sugar depending on the speed you mix it at.”

The researcher would than design and conduct experiments to test their hypothesis. They examine what past studies have already been done by performing a review of published research. This ensures that their research is novel. A food scientist may develop a study where sugar is mixed at speeds and characterized using different laboratory equipment. The researcher will than analyze their data to see if they hypothesis is valid or not. After multiple experiments the researcher can than offer a conclusion or theory. In this case whether or not mixing does indeed affect the shape of sugar crystals.

Much of the research that is used in product development is based on that of fundamental research performed by food scientists. Food is very complex and much is still needed to be explored.

3. Food Scientists have post-graduate degrees

When it comes to the term food scientist there is no defined credentials of what a food scientist has. Food scientists have a diverse background of degrees depending on their areas of specialization. Common degrees include food science, chemistry, biology, nutrition and engineering. In some cases a food scientist may even have a degree in psychology however this is more typical of those interested of the psychological affects of food.

Food scientists can work for agricultural and food production companies such as those that develop new food products. This role may blend with that of product developer as some companies use the term interchangeably.

Those employed at companies in their research divisions may have college degrees and in rare cases work experiences as a chef. However, food scientists may also work for research firms, governmental organizations, colleges and universities. Typically, those that undertake research at a university or college are pursuing graduate degrees such as a master’s or PhD. Afterwards they work as postdoctoral research who is a person who professionally conducts research after the completion of their doctoral studies (PhD).

4.  Food Scientists propose and follow up with research

Unfortunately, science isn’t free and there is always someone who has to foot the bill. Expenses come from places like paying the researcher and paying for the tools that they use to conduct their research. Funding can come from many sources but will depend on where you are working. A researcher at a university or college for example could be funded by the government, an association or a food processing company.

In cases where they are funded by government the food scientist will likely have to write grant proposals in order to secure funding. A grant proposal is a request for money to fulfill some purpose. In these proposals food scientist will propose a set of experiments addressing a research question. They have to be persuasive in their tone and create an actionable plan within a given time period (usually less than 4 years).

Food scientists that are employed with companies also have to pay mind to funding. They will have to be persuasive of their research convincing upper management that their research is necessary for the company.

5.  Food Scientists perform research

As part of the scientific method food scientists are required to perform experiments. The type of experiments the food scientist creates is based on the type of food science they perform.

A researcher that studies the texture of emulsions like butter or margarine for example may use tools such as texture analyzers, microscopes, X-ray diffractometers and NMR spectrometers. Other food scientists that study the biological side of food processing may test samples for bacteria or molds that may make products unsafe or reduce their shelf life. Alternatively, food scientists that work at food processing companies may study processing equipment and the different ways that it can be used to create new food products.

Studies can take days, months or even years depending on the scope of the research. Overall, it’s key that food scientist conduct multiple trials to validate their results.

6.  Food Scientists analyze data

Conducting experiments is just one half of a food scientist’s job. The second half is to analyze their results and translate it into ways that readers can understand.

Raw data is collected and summarized using spreadsheets, databases, tables and graphs. For example, a food scientist may take a microscope image of a cookie and than analyze it using computer software. They may quantify the size of the particles or look at shape of different components.

Data can either be quantitative- numbers based or qualitative observation based such as those given by participants in human trials. After the data is organized and analyzed the food scientist will validate their results by conducting statistics on their results. There is a saying in science about interesting results, “Once is chance, two times is coincidence and three times is statistically significant!”

7. Food Scientists collaborate with other scientists

When people think about food scientists an image of a scientist working alone in a lab comes to mind. Although this might be true in some cases this isn’t the whole picture. Science is based on collaboration between scientists.

After the completion of their experiments food scientists will translate their results into presentations, papers and reports so it can be discussed with others. Within their lab group they will have conversations about potential explanations for their results and future experiments they can carry out.

Scientists will frequently travel around the country (and sometimes even around the world!) to present and discuss their results with others. Typically these discussions will happen during scientific conferences. Scientific conferences are events usually organized by a scientific society where scientists give short presentations describing their research. This allows them to learn about recent development in the fields of food science and get to know colleagues.

8. Food Scientists are communicate well, are creative and stay organized

Being a Food Scientists requires a wide range of skills. However, there are a few which are more essential than others. Important account manager skills include:

  • Creative– Food science is guided by curiosity and hypotheses. Food scientists need to be creative in coming up with with experiments that test their hypotheses. Overall, good quality research leads to more and more questions.
  • Organized– Many times food science projects can take months to overcome. Therefore food scientists need to plan and organize their research months at a time. Staying organized isn’t just limited to their projects. Food scientists also need to be organized with their data. It’s critical that they keep their data organized or this could be falsified data!
  • Communication– Food scientist don’t just spend all their time in the lab cooped up. A lot of a food scientists time is dedicated to communicating their research results to others, whether it is other scientists in their group, outside examiners. Food scientist communicate in the ways of email, reports, presentations and general conversations. If a food scientist doesn’t effectively communicate their research it is never going to go anywhere.

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