Good taste. Students at UNISG study the science of food.


How to Become a Food Scientist

TURIN, ITALY—Here in the cavernous exhibition space at the European Science Open Forum, it seems like every European scientific organization or institute has its own booth, each with a lonely volunteer. But there's one that always seems to have visitors, and it's no wonder why. The University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) is offering a degree program to die for: a rigorous exploration of the science of cuisine, founded by Carlo Petrini, the leader of the ecofriendly Slow Food movement. For those interested in launching a career in scientific gastronomy, here's the lowdown.

It's not cheap. But the €13,000-per-year tuition covers everything besides accommodation. None of the 350 UNISG students live on the Bra campus in Northern Italy. Instead, they settle in the surrounding village of Pollenzo not far from Turin. (But note, the area is so beautiful that it is under consideration by UNESCO to become a World Heritage Site.) The tuition even includes field trips to places such as New Zealand and India-to study the production of wine and rice, respectively. UNISG offers a 3-year undergraduate degree and a 1- or 2-year master's. Most graduates find jobs in the food or tourism industries.

No one learns how to cook. This fact took me by surprise. "Cooking is only a small part of gastronomy," says UNISG professor Gabriella Morini, a molecular biologist who specializes in oral sensation. Instead, she says, "we focus on other aspects of food." Running down the list of UNISG courses reveals a wide range. The classic gastronomic subjects are there: agriculture, viticulture, and the history of food. But most of the courses wouldn't be out of place at a research university: food microbiology, molecular aspects of taste, and cultural anthropology. The university also has a unique resource: the "wine bank" containing 100,000 bottles of wine from every region of Italy going back 50 years. Unfortunately, it's not for casual consumption. "The wine bank is for historical research," Morini says.

But you can do real research. UNISG faculty members don't just teach. Morini, for example, studies the "chemestetic" sensations of food, the components of the taste experience such as the "hotness" of peppers or the "pungency" of garlic. Last year, she discovered a previously unknown molecule from a Korean herb that binds to the pungency receptors in the mouth. She and her students have already found an application for it: a flavor enhancer for beer.