Food and Drug Research Scientist, Food Chemist, Food Engineer, Food Scientist, Food Technologist, Formulator, Product Development Scientist, Research Chef, Research Food Technologist, Research Scientist
When we go to the grocery store or a restaurant, we rarely put much thought into where the food comes from or how it is made. We take for granted the amazing behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing most of the processed foods we eat.
Even a simple Doritos chip requires several steps to create, from recipe research and development to making, crushing, cooking, and cutting the dough (which is made from ground corn called masa). Next are the packaging and shipping processes, during which the chips must be kept free from contaminants and safe from environmental conditions which could affect them. That’s just one example out of thousands of food items we consume!
The people behind much of this work are called Food Technologists and Food Scientists. They use their knowledge of chemistry and biology to research food elements and develop and improve the processes for making food items. This includes determining the nutritional content and seeking ways to make processed food healthier and safer while ensuring it can stay preserved in its packaging as it is shipped and stored on shelves.
- Helping to ensure the food we eat is safe to eat
- Contributing to one of the largest, most important global industries
- Working on food products that will be consumed by possibly millions of people, with some recipes being enjoyed over generations
- Food Technologists and Scientists work full-time, usually in offices or laboratories. They may travel to visit locations such as processing plants.
- Collaborate with food producers, packagers, storage centers, distributors, and regulatory agencies regarding sanitation, safety, quality assurance, and waste disposal
- Explore food elements and discover new food sources using knowledge of chemistry and biology
- Study the chemical composition of ingredients and how to interact when combined to form products
- Conduct basic and applied research aimed at boosting food processing safety, productivity, and efficiency
- Examine the nutritional content of food products. Suggest replacements for unwanted additives
- Visit processing facilities to review and help manage projects
- Examine raw ingredients to ensure they are ready for use but not spoiled or past their freshness date
- Help design and develop new food products and improve existing ones to last longer, taste better, be more nutritious and healthier, and sell more!
- Study how food holds up during storage periods. Propose strategies for better packaging and delivery to help food stay preserved and fresh longer
- Review products for taste, texture, visual attributes, and nutritional content; collaborate with plant operators and process engineers to suggest changes and improvements
- Test new products to ensure compliance with standards
- Manage teams working together on larger research projects
- Pay attention to consumer feedback; make recommendations for changes based on the data
- Help write standards and specifications in compliance with applicable state and federal regulations
- Read relevant articles and news to keep up on changes in the food science profession
- Work with nanotechnology to detect contaminants
- Analytical Thinking
- Attention to detail
- Strong communication skills
- Organic chemistry
- Computational modeling and simulation, such as COMSOL, MATLAB, or Aspen Plus
- Customer relationship management
- Food production and processing techniques and equipment
- Food safety and traceability programs such as FoodLogiQ, SafetyChain, or TraceGains
- Industry-related software, such as Genesis R&D and ESHA Food Processor
- Laboratory Information Management Systems
- Math (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics)
- Quality Management Systems
- Sensory Evaluation Software
- Statistical analysis software, such as R, SAS, or SPSS
- Food manufacturers/research and development labs
- Private consulting services
- Governmental agencies
Some positions require frequent travel, which can be tough on workers who have other obligations. When visiting controlled areas such as food processing facilities, Food Technologists and Scientists must follow strict procedures designed to mitigate contaminants being introduced to the area. Such areas may be kept at cold temperatures or might be noisy because of production machinery.
Perhaps the main expectation is that workers in this field must know how to keep food safe for consumption. By the same, they could find themselves held at least partially accountable for occurrences where a food product makes a consumer sick, depending on the circumstances.
Employment of Food Scientists is expected to grow by about 8%, which is more than the average of all career fields. The world’s population is growing, increasing the demand for limited resources such as water and agricultural products. At the same time, extreme weather conditions are hurting the agricultural community, sometimes resulting in less crop yields. All of these factors contribute to the need for Food Technologists and Scientists’ skills to help boost efficiency and productivity so that no food goes to waste.
Other trends include the push for more meatless products, such as plant-based burger patties. Consumers are also increasingly interested in “functional foods” that offer a specific health or well-being benefit, such as probiotic drinks.
Food Technologists and Scientists may have enjoyed learning about chemistry in school or just been curious about how the food we eat is made. This field requires hard skills in math, data analysis, organic chemistry, and technology usage, as well as soft skills such as curiosity, critical thinking, and collaboration. These skills may have been initially developed in school but later applied and practiced in real life during college.
- Food Technologists and Scientists need a bachelor’s degree or higher, usually majoring in food science at a program approved by the Institute of Food Technologists Higher Education Review Board
- Common subjects include:
- Business fundamentals
- Chemistry and organic chemistry
- Food analysis
- Food chemistry
- Food engineering
- Food law
- Food processing operations
- Statistical analysis
- Students can gain practical, hands-on experience and develop teamwork skills via internships and research experiences
- Certifications are optional but can boost one’s breadth and depth of knowledge. Options include:
- American Society for Quality - Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Auditor
- American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers - Accredited Agricultural Consultant
- Institute of Food Technologists - Certified Food Scientist
- National Environmental Health Association - Certified Professional - Food Safety
- National Registry of Food Safety Professionals - Food Safety Manager
- Research Chefs Association - Certified Culinary Scientist
- Individuals who want to focus on research work will need to earn a master’s degree or higher
- Students should seek food science programs approved by the Institute of Food Technologists. Attendance in such a program qualifies students to apply for a Feeding Tomorrow Scholarship!
- Always compare the costs of tuition and other fees. Review your options for scholarships and financial aid
- See if the program has any partnerships with companies that hire grads!
- Check out graduation and job placement statistics for alumni of the program
- High school students should take plenty of courses in chemistry, English, communications, information technology, math, statistics, and physics
- Do your best to prepare for the rigors of an undergraduate food science major in college
- In college, join student organizations relevant to the material, so you can stay motivated and extend your learning beyond the classroom
- If the program offers internship opportunities, take them to get practical experience. If it doesn’t, consider taking part-time jobs related to the food industry, to learn the behind-the-scenes of food processing, storage, and shipping
- Think about the type of Food Science work you want to do after graduation, so you can maybe tailor your classes accordingly. Cal Poly lists the following areas of specialization. Note, some require a graduate degree:
- Food Chemist
- Food Microbiologist or Food Safety Expert
- Food Plant Production Supervisor or Manager
- Food Process and Packaging Design Engineer
- Food Product or Ingredient Development Scientist
- Ingredient, Product, or Equipment Sales Representative/Manager
- Quality Control Supervisor
- Regulatory Affairs Specialist
- Sensory Scientist
- Read magazines and website articles about the field. Check out Top 20 Food Technology Magazines & Publications and Iowa State University’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Research Guide
- Watch Abbey the Food Scientist on YouTube!
- Check out job portals like Indeed.com as well as Careers in Food, Good Food Jobs, North American Food Systems Network
- Before graduating from college, speak with your program’s academic advisor or your school’s career center about finding work. Some schools may partner with employers and be able to connect you to a recruiter
- Stay in touch with your classmates and use your network to get job tips
- Ask your instructors if they’re willing to serve as personal references
- Check out some Food Scientist resume examples
- Research Food Technologist interview questions. Pay close attention to the more in-depth questions which will try to gauge your specific knowledge level, such as “Describe some crucial organoleptic characteristics of food”
- Practice doing mock interviews and remember to dress appropriately for interviews!
- Come up with creative ideas for improving products and expanding product lines
- Do diligent research and master the software programs you use at work
- Communicate with leadership, stakeholders, and third parties you engage with to ensure objectives and timeframes are clearly defined and attainable
- Collaborate effectively with team members and foster strong relationships with partners
- Let your supervisor know you’re interested in career progression. Ask them for advice on what you can do to make yourself a more valuable asset
- Always keep learning! Stay up-to-date on industry trends and changes, including regulatory changes as well as new or upgraded software programs
- Get a professional certification relevant to your current job or the one you want to move up to. Getting specialized in a difficult, in-demand area is a good way to move up
- Consider earning a graduate degree. Speak with college program advisors about career progression and the classes you’d need to gain the knowledge and skills to advance
- Set the example for others to follow and be a patient mentor with new technologies and other employees
- Keep active in professional organizations like the Institute of Food Technologists
- Continue to grow your network—and your reputation as an industry professional!
- American Chemical Society
- American Dairy Science Association
- American Meat Science Association
- American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists
- American Society for Quality
- American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers
- American Society of Agronomy
- American Society of Animal Science
- Department of Agriculture
- Future Farmers of America
- Institute of Food Technologists
- National Institutes of Health
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- Essentials of Food Science, by Vickie A. Vaclavik, Elizabeth Christian, et. al.
- Food Science: An Ecological Approach: An Ecological Approach, by Sari Edelstein
- Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind the Food That Isn't Food, by Chris van Tulleken
Becoming a Food Technologist or Food Scientist is a relatively straightforward process, and the job outlook seems pretty good, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, the work isn’t for everyone and that’s okay!
Luckily it’s just one of many loosely similar career fields you can choose from if you have a general interest in a food, biology, or chemistry-related occupation. A few other options include:
- Agricultural and Food Science Technician
- Animal Scientist
- Biological Technician
- Chemical Technician
- Conservation Scientist
- Environmental Scientist
- Soil and Plant Scientist
- Wildlife Biologist