When people talk about the careers which lead to strong employment opportunities, typically nursing, teaching, and engineering are mentioned. However, studying food science also offers excellent employment prospects. The Institute of Food Technologists notes that a typical starting salary for a Bachelors-level food scientist is $50,000 a year. The demand for food scientists is also high, as food trends change and new foods are continually being developed.
So what does a food scientist actually do?
- Research and Development of new foods or ingredients. This is where most of my food science acquaintances ended up. If you want to help design the next granola bar, cereal flavor, cheese, or chicken pot pie, this is your chance.
- Food chemistry–analyzing the ingredients of foods including pH, carbohydrate content, salt content, etc.
- Food engineering or processing–working on processing and packaging methods. This could involve developing new packaging materials or new processing methods which improve the look or taste of foods.
- Food microbiology–control food spoilage, work with cultured foods (such as yogurt, kimchi, and cheese).
- Food safety–ensuring food is safe from pathogens, foreign objects, and dangerous chemicals as well as monitoring the food processing environment to ensure it isn’t harboring pathogens.
- Sensory science–basically testing new products on consumer panels for taste/smell/mouthfeel and other sensory aspects which can affect how well consumers like them. Fun fact: Purdue has a sensory lab which recruits students and staff to try new food products and then rewards them with treats or gift cards.
- Sales–actually marketing all the fun new food products
Assuming that this job list sounds interesting to you, you’re probably wondering where you can get a food science degree and what’s involved.
A food science degree is not as science-heavy as a biology degree or a chemistry degree, but it generally will require a chemistry class and a microbiology class or two as well as a math or statistics class. Purdue’s required a capstone class that involved designing a new food product. Many food science programs will have multiple contacts with local and national/international industries and attempt to help students get internships during their undergraduate studies (I believe at least some internships are paid). These internships are invaluable for getting permanent employment post-graduation.
So where can you get a degree? In the links below is a USDA list of food science programs in the U.S. There is also a list of IFT-accredited programs. IFT is a trade organization for food scientists, and the student association offers numerous contests and small fellowships. A non-accredited program will not keep you from getting a job, it simply signals to companies and employers that your program was high-quality. In general, there is at least one college or university in each U.S. state which has a food science/technology program (there are a few exceptions).
Feel free to comment with questions if you’re interested in food science or notes on your experience if you’re a food scientist.
Institute for Food Technologists:
USDA’s list of Food Science/Food Technology programs in the U.S.: https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/college-and-university-food-science-programs