What is Food Science?

A diverse, evolving, vital field key to local economy, jobs

The Healthy Plymouth Panthers Food Science Team from Plymouth High School finished second in the 2014 Whipping Up Wellness: Wisconsin School Chef Competition Cook-off. — Submitted photo The Healthy Plymouth Panthers Food Science Team from Plymouth High School finished second in the 2014 Whipping Up Wellness: Wisconsin School Chef Competition Cook-off. — Submitted photo Plymouth High School student Will Hunter, who has taken the Food Science class at PHS, was able to put his knowledge into practice recently by helping to judge a mustard contest hosted by Johnsonville Foods.

Will was one of a group of judges that also included PHS Food Science teacher Gale Litt, Johnsonville employees and people from the LTC Culinary Program. They evaluated appetizers one day and main and side dishes the next, grading each mustard on taste, visual appearance, how the mustard was used, and ease of preparation.

“During my Food Science class Mrs. Litt really allowed us to be hands on and not just learn about the science behind food but we got to go into the lab and make the food,” said Will, who plans to study culinary arts after graduation. “We also had to create a sensory ballet for each product we made, and that allowed me to apply my skills of grading foods and giving important feedback to the person creating the dish.”

PHS student Will Hunter poses with mustards he judged during a recent contest hosted by Johnsonville Foods. Sensory evaluations are among the many applications of food science. — Submitted photo PHS student Will Hunter poses with mustards he judged during a recent contest hosted by Johnsonville Foods. Sensory evaluations are among the many applications of food science. — Submitted photo Judging a mustard contest is just one example of the range of opportunities available under the umbrella of food science.

Food science is the study of the physical, biological and chemical makeup of food, as well as the concepts underlying food processing, said PHS Food Science teacher Gale Litt. It informs food technology, the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution and use of safe food.

Jay Grosshuesch, PHS chemistry teacher, noted that there is a lot of science involved in the growing and preparation of food, and in the development of food products. Food science is involved in determining how different ingredients react chemically to produce food that has certain characteristics, tastes, textures, etc.

The PHS food science class was developed with input from a science teacher and carries science credit. “It is a course that is designed to help students understand the broad opportunities within the field of food science and for them to begin to apply science concepts to real food issues,” Litt said.

Diverse field

Food science is a broad field, offered as a major at many universities, said David Nicholson, a food scientist with Johnsonville Foods. “If you’re interested in a career involving food, but not sure what, food science is a good place to start,” he said.

Among the careers stemming from food science are sensory scientist, flavor chemist, food engineer, biochemist, research analyst, marketing specialist, product developer, meat scientist, dairy scientist, quality assurance, food inspector and microbiologist.

Food scientists develop new products, design processes to produce foods, develop packaging materials, conduct shelf-life studies, do microbiological and chemical testing, and conduct sensory evaluations, said Kristi Jankowski, a food scientist at Sargento Foods.

“A food scientist may specialize beyond fundamental food science or chemistry,” she added. “A food engineer focuses on food processing. A food microbiologist focuses on the interaction of microbes on the stability, attributes and safety of food. A sensory scientist focuses on the sensory evaluation of products. A food packaging engineer focuses on packaging methods and structures. A culinologist blends the technical skills of food science with the artistic skills of culinary.”

Evolving opportunities

Food science has evolved a lot during the past 20 years, Nicholson said. It is driven by trends, he said, noting that at one point food science was heavily focused on developing foods low in fat. Now the latest thing is high protein.

“Food science has always been a part of a safe food supply, but today as we manufacture food in large facilities it is essential to the development of food products,” Litt said. “Every product that is in the grocery store can in some way be linked to food science.”

The range of careers also is evolving, too. The culinology degree came about as people began to appreciate the science behind food, Nicholson said. “They are being taught how to modify products to get unique flavors and textures,” he said.

Today food scientists are specializing more, Jankowski said. “In the past, you would find a chemical engineer who had some experience in food. Today they are blending the two disciplines at the university level.”

Meanwhile, culinary schools are bringing in more science. “Blending the technical understanding of food systems with culinary training is a highly sought-after skill set for food manufacturers because they need the technical foundation to create stable, safe products along with the culinary creativity and artistry to create products that consumers will love,” she said.

Vital to local economy

Food science is very important to our local economy, which counts major food companies among its largest employers.

“In our community, we have a variety of food industries, including those focusing on cheese and sau- sage,” Litt said. “The companies are dependent upon employees that are trained in food science in order for them to be on the cutting edge in the food industry.”

PHS has multiple opportunities to partner with local dairy and sausage businesses, Grosshuesch noted. “These relationships can work both directions as the industries can offer the school practical applications of food science and expertise in how it works in the field,” he said. “The school can offer the local companies a possible source of local workers who are interested in the field and have some cursory exposure to the topic.”

It can be difficult to recruit professionals with food science credentials to the area, so the hope is that the Food Science and Agriculture Center being planned for Plymouth High School will generate homegrown food scientists.

“If our students who have been raised here can then advance in careers in this field, they will hopefully want to return to this area and continue to grow the industries,” Litt said.

Food science offers excellent career prospects, said Nicholson, who steers his own nieces and nephews in that direction. For one thing, food is recession proof, since people have to eat no matter what, he said.

Jankowski agreed. “Obtaining a college degree in food science can lead to many, very desirable opportunities,” she said. “The job placement for food scientists is extremely high given the limited supply and high demand.”

The field of food science also offers great opportunities to help others, Nicholson said, noting that 40 percent of our food is thrown away for various reasons. “How do we reduce that? The younger generation wants to make a difference; this is a great way to do it.”

Sandy Toney, vice president of corporate quality and product development at Masters Gallery Foods Inc., agreed. “Food science can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling from both an emotional and financial standpoint,” she said. “Making sure that the food supply for the world is safe is not a small task. It takes educated, dedicated and caring individuals who are willing to stand up to the demands of industry and make sound judgments under the pressures of our fast-paced world.”

Look for a donor form in The Review’s Xtras during the month of July, outlining how you can make a donation to support the Plymouth Education Foundation’s Capital Campaign to build the Food Science and Agriculture Center at Plymouth High School. Or, visit www.plymouthedfoundation.org to learn more about the project including how to make a donation. If you make a donation before August 29, you can double your impact during the Community Match Challenge that has been issued by an anonymous Plymouth High School alumnus, who is matching donations dollar for dollar up to $10,000.

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