Food has always involved a high degree of experimentation and science. Although you can cook without any scientific knowledge, physics and chemistry govern everything in the kitchen, from the leavening agents that allow a cake to rise to the Maillard reactions that form the crust of bread.
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Food scientists are responsible for envisioning, researching, and trialing new or updated products and recipes using their knowledge of these physical and chemical laws that underly cooking and baking processes.
Ensuring all aspects of the finished product are met
The main aim of food scientists is to ensure a product tastes good and also performs well. A food scientist often works to a brief, to achieve certain aspects of the finished food product, these aspects may be related to the way the food tastes, its texture, how it looks, it’s shelf life, smell, nutrient content, or other factors.
For example, a healthy snack manufacturer Kind uses honey in place of processed sugar. Tina Yang, KIND’s senior food scientist, describes how this poses a challenge because the honey cannot simply be used as a direct substitution. It has different properties and changes the numerous aspects of the product.
Yang explains that simply switching from sugar to honey involves considering the behavior of honey, that it absorbs the water from other ingredients, such as nuts. It is also, obviously, very sticky, and this impacts the finished look and texture of the product.
In this way, being a scientist is very much a balancing act, where the correct combination of different ingredients must be carefully calculated to achieve the intended outcomes, of which there may be multiple.
Overall, food scientists use expertise from a range of disciplines, including chemistry, physics, microbiology, engineering, and more to understand the principles underlying food deterioration, and to determine the best ways to cook/bake/process foods, how to perfectly balance recipes, how to store and distribute it and also, to enable new and safe food sources to be discovered and tested.
Keeping up to date on food trends
Recently, vegan diets have become increasingly popular. As people are becoming increasingly aware of the food production process, including its harm to animals as well as its environmental impact, more people are choosing vegan options over meat.
Also, the vegan diet is now generally viewed as a healthier choice, leading people to choose it who are looking to lead a healthier lifestyle. For food scientists, this has meant developing products that perhaps look and taste similar to familiar meat products, but that are made entirely from vegan ingredients.
This involves knowledge of the properties of different food ingredients, as well as experimentation, followed by systematic analysis and improvement strategies.
Veganism is not the only food trend impacting the daily lives of food scientists. As part of their job responsibilities, job food scientists must keep up to date on the current and future food trends to enable them to innovate products that fall in line with people’s needs and wants.
For example, high protein diets are also becoming increasingly popular, as is the preference towards natural and organic ingredients, people are now expected to be able to read the back of their food packets and understand what goes into them.
Because of this, part of a food scientist's daily responsibilities will involve research into current food trends, especially any in particular that are driving the brief of a current project. Food scientists may also research how other companies are overcoming popular challenges, such as that of innovating vegan alternative products.
They may also work with new equipment or machinery that is involved in the production processes of these new food types, even if they are not the ones who will operate it because understanding the technology helps food scientists gain insights into how to use it in their strategies.
Meeting changing regulations
Another main role for food scientists that is a big part of their daily responsibilities is keeping up with new and updated regulations surrounding food products. For example, governments set laws and regulations, as well as various initiatives which put restrictions and guidelines up regarding how certain ingredients can be used.
For example, recent years have seen trends for governments around the world setting guidelines regarding how much salt should be consumed each day. This has come in light of a growing body of research that is demonstrating that high levels of dietary salt are related to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), which are the leading cause of death across the globe.
This has led to initiatives being set around the world to encourage people to lower their salt intake. The WHO recommends that no more than 5 grams of salt per day should be consumed.
These guidelines are leading food manufacturers to seek to reduce the salt levels in their products while retaining the taste, texture, look, smell, etc, that their customers are used to. This requires food scientists to innovate ways to achieve lower salt content without amending the finished product.