Niche Careers: Food Scientist
Have you ever torn open a bag of Cappuccino-flavored Lays and wondered how they make potatoes taste like coffee? Or maybe you were “that kid” who made weird concoctions with leftovers in the lunchroom.
If Remy from Ratatouille is your spirit animal, you should consider a career in food science.
What is food science?
Food scientist Jessica Gavin says that “Food science is the study of the physical, biological, and chemical makeup of food. It draws from many disciplines in an attempt to better understand food processes and ultimately improve food products for the general public. Food technology applies food science principles for the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe food.”
Obviously, this is a pretty broad field. Food science as a whole deals with everything from agriculture to production to marketing the boxes, bottles, and bags of food products that end up in your kitchen. Individual food scientists and companies each focus on their own part of the process, so while some food scientists have advanced chemistry and agriculture degrees, others have culinary certifications, marketing experience, engineering degrees, or some combination of expertise.
What do food scientists do?
Most food scientists are primarily analysts. They are excellent statisticians and work in offices crunching numbers related to taste-testing surveys, agricultural techniques, or projected and completed product experiments.
Some food scientists do a great deal of travel, connecting the people who take the food from the ground to those who get it to the vending machine. Others are like salesmen, working with consumers, taste-testers, client companies, and partner businesses to advance and improve products. Still others work in labs or kitchens, conducting and then analyzing physical production techniques.
Food scientists’ pay varies widely based on their job description, education/certification, and experience. The median salary for general agricultural and food science professionals is $58,610. Some areas within food science have much higher pay, such as Sensory Evaluation Specialists (median $76,000), and as in many fields, managers tend to make more than office workers.
How can I become a food scientist?
A bachelor’s degree (typically with a hard science or engineering concentration) is a must in this field, and graduate school is strongly recommended. Culinary school is also an asset.
As with any field, developing a strong network by going to conferences, working in related fields or in internships, and making connections with food science professors can be the difference between breaking into the profession and struggling to find work. People skills and a dedication to keeping up with the latest scientific studies and advancements will really set you apart before and during your food service career.
Some food science jobs require a simple course certification, or just related work experience, but others want you to have formal food science certification. The Institute of Food Technologists governs food scientist certification and produced the following chart to explain the education and experience required to become certified:
In addition to education and experience, those interested in certification must submit an application, $550-$750 fee, and take a 120-question computer-based CFS exam. Maintaining certification entails recording a minimum number of work hours and taking a recertification exam every five years. Additionally, many aspiring food scientists take prep courses to avoid costly retesting fees.
Food science certainly isn’t a field for those looking for an easy, low-maintenance career, but it can be very rewarding and offers unique opportunities for growth and advancement. Plus, it’s a universally relevant field that isn’t likely to become unnecessary anytime soon!