Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Food Network Effect

For most chemists, tasting the fruits of your labor would be inadvisable at the very least and at the worst, deadly. But for food scientists, making sure that their work tastes good is an important and rewarding part of the job.

Food scientists explore the chemistry of aromas and flavors, study the microbiology of food spoilage, develop better packaging, control the production of food, and help their employers meet government regulation of foods. The packaged foods that line supermarket shelves have been engineered for mass production in commercial plants and refined to keep food safe, to enhance natural flavors, and to provide consistent flavor. About 70% of food scientists work in industry, according to the Institute of Food Technologists, and about 50 institutions around the United States have certified degree programs in food science. But not everyone working in the field comes from a food science program; others enter the field with degrees in engineering, chemistry, and marketing--even the culinary arts.

Applying Basic Science in New Ways

Aurora Saulo came to the United States from the Philippines to study chemical physics at the University of Massachusetts on a Fulbright fellowship. She wanted to stay on for her Ph.D., but she knew she didn't want to work in a laboratory for the rest of her life. So she finished her master's degree in chemical physics and looked around for another field for her Ph.D. work. She considered computer science, but she lacked the prerequisites and didn't want to have to go back to school in order to be able to go back to school. "The one discipline that welcomed my background in chemistry, physics, and math is food science," Saulo says. The transition was almost seamless.

Aurora Saulo

Saulo started her food-industry career in 1978 as a flavor chemist for United Brands, working on an all-natural banana essence. She set up a chemistry lab equipped to identify and quantify volatile flavor compounds from bananas, some of which are lost as the food is heated during production. She then determined which of those natural banana aromas needed to be added back to restore the original flavor and enhance the perception of the essential flavors that consumers identify as a banana.

Before working at United Brands, Saulo had never worked with the large-scale lines and machinery like those found in pilot plants. "I was more used to laboratory-sized equipment, so when I moved to the pilot plant, that was really educational for me, and I loved it." When a food engineer left the research and development division 3 years later, Saulo had enough experience to take over the job, supervising pilot plant operations for new products and helping to translate experimental runs into commercial-scale production--all for a variety of banana-based products.

"Name it--different shape, size, and forms--we did it. We did banana juice, we did diced bananas, frozen, dried--whatever," Saulo says. United Brands provided many of their products to other food producers, like Sara Lee and Gerber foods. In addition to her scientific and management work, Saulo made presentations to potential clients, encouraging them to apply the products her plant had developed. Later, she went to work at Wesson Foods in Fullerton, California, as a product developer, working on the dried and canned versions of an all-natural Sloppy Joe mix.

"Because I Love to Eat!"

During his 10 years at Kraft Foods, Lael Hamilton has helped formulate Italian salad dressings, Kraft Singles with Vitamin D, and Kraft 1-oz. Natural (cheese) Sticks, among other products. Hamilton is a senior group leader in research and development who enjoys orchestrating the progression of a product from the seed of an idea, through pilot-line tests and commercial-scale trials, and onto a shelf at a local supermarket. "I love to eat—so I can't sugarcoat that," he says.

Lael Hamilton

An African-American scientist from inner-city Chicago, Hamilton credits the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences with inspiring his interest in food science. Later, he became interested in how machines work and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, earning a minor in food science. During college, he spent four summers as an intern at Kraft, which led to his current position. "I could have worked on cars, but I like the idea of working close to food," he says. "Then I could design my food products the way I like to eat them."

Training as a Food Scientist

A degree in food science, or at least some coursework, offers definite advantages for people who want to work in the field, says Rich Hartel, a professor of food engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Another common entry point is a degree in chemical engineering, because much of what they learn during training can be applied to the equipment and processes in food-production plants.

Job opportunities exist in the industry at every degree level, from a bachelor's to a Ph.D. Candidates with master's degrees typically advance more quickly than employees with bachelor's degrees, and a Ph.D. in food science offers some additional advancement potential--but a Ph.D. may limit opportunities for industry jobs in some roles and sectors, Hartel says.

Members of the Institute of Food Technologists, a professional organization of 22,000, earn a median annual salary of $78,000, according to a survey done late last year; the survey reported a 98% employment rate. Hartel says that all of the University of Wisconsin's graduate students and about 95% of undergraduates from the United States either find employment before graduation or pursue graduate studies. Up to 25% of the University of Wisconsin's food science undergraduates come from other countries and typically return home after graduation.

The Food Network Effect

People often enter food science by transferring from fields such as chemistry or biology. "Recently, I think they [students] are being swayed by the Food Network. So they see Alton Brown's show and Foods Unwrapped and think, 'That's pretty cool, I'd like to work on that,' " Hartel says. Traditionally, food science has defined itself as a technical field separate from the culinary arts, but, partly as a result of the Food Network effect, students don't always think of it that way when they enter the field. "We have always fought this image that food scientists are cooks," Hartel adds.

But this might be changing. According to Hartel, a recent trend in the food industry is to hire people with cooking skills to help with product development, and an increasing number of food science students are now pursuing additional training in the culinary arts. Such lateral moves aren't exactly new, but they seem to be on the rise; Hartel knows three graduates (out of 17, total) from the 2006 food science class at the University of Wisconsin who are headed to cooking school. "The three that are going out to culinary school now are doing it with the intention of coming back into the food industry and getting better jobs and more valuable jobs because they have that cooking skill," he says.

Combining cooking skills with a food science degree is also appealing to culinary graduates. Although John DeShetler, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and a former chef for Kraft Foods, has only seen a few food science graduates come through their program, he has noticed a growing trend: About 10% to 15% of their graduates seek training in food science. The Culinary Institute's campus in Hyde Park, New York, also has an exchange program with the food science program at Cornell University that allows students to take courses on each other's campuses.

Entering the Field From Other Disciplines

Today, it is much less common than it used to be for people with a good general science background but no specialized degree to enter the food industry, Hartel says. But it's not impossible. The key is to market your skills in a way that will make them appealing to the food industry, experts say. Experts also recommend getting involved with the activities at food science departments or professional organizations as a way of demonstrating serious interest in the field. The transition to the food industry from outside food science is easiest for engineers, usually, but a determined scientist with a strong analytical chemistry or bacteriology background should be able to make the switch.

Government positions offer another food-related career path for those with a more general science background. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Center for Food Safety and Additive Nutrition provides a variety of opportunities for chemists, microbiologists, toxicologists, and food technologists. "You come in with a science background," said one regulatory chemist at FDA with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. "But what you need to learn are the regulatory aspects of the job." Her daily routine involves reviewing chemical and toxicology data from a food company's petition about chemical additives that they would like to include in products. Working with other scientists in the division, their group decides whether to allow the additive in a food product. Experience in government regulation can also lead to careers in consulting for law firms and consulting for private firms that assist in drafting food petitions.

Extension Work

Personal changes led Aurora Saulo--the Fulbright fellow and banana expert from the Philippines--to move to Hawaii in 1985. There were some food-industry jobs there, but she was overqualified for the ones that were available, so she took her knowledge and experience to the University of Hawaii, Manoa, as a faculty member.

In her faculty position, Saulo spends 90% of her time doing extension work, paid by the university to assist food manufacturers with product development and marketing and helping to design commercial production plants. She raises grant money for research projects, writes reports on issues including food allergens and acrylamide in foods, and informs Hawaiian food producers about new regulations and other developments in the food industry.

As the only food-technology extension specialist in Hawaii, Saulo appreciates the autonomy of her position, but it's the connections that make the biggest difference for her. "The interpersonal relationships are important because they trust me," she says. "And then if they have a problem, they can come to me. So it's beautiful in that sense."

Sarah Webb has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry. She writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .