Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Food Technologists

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FAST FACTS

  • School Subjects: Chemistry, Mathematics
  • Personal Skills: Following instructions Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors, Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $29,620 to $73,150 to $97,3S0+
  • Certification or Licensing: Voluntary
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 041
  • GOE: 07 03 04
  • NOC: N/A
  • O*NET-SOC: 19-1012.00, 19-4011.02

OVERVIEW

Food technologists, sometimes known as food scientists, study the physical, chemical, and biological composition of food. They develop methods for safely processing, preserving, and packaging food and search for ways to improve its flavor and nutritional value. They also conduct tests to ensure that products, from fresh produce to packaged meals, meet industry and government standards. Approximately 8,700 food technologists are employed in the United States.

HISTORY

One of the earliest methods of food preservation was drying. Grains were sun- and air dried to prevent mold growth and insect damage Fruits and vegetables dried in the sun and meats dried and smoked over a fire were stored for use during times of need Fruits were preserved by fermenting them into wines and vinegars, and fermented milk became curds, cheeses, and yogurts. Methods of food preservation improved over the centuries, but there were severe limitations until the evolution of scientific methods made it possible to preserve food. By creating conditions unfavorable to the growth survival of spoilage microorganisms and preventing deterioration by enzymes, scientists were able to extend the storage life of foods well beyond the normal period.

For most of history, people bought or traded for bulk foods, such as grain or rice, rather than prepared foods. This began to change in the early 1800s, when new methods of preserving and packaging foods were developed. The science of food technology did not, however, really develop until shortly before the American entrance into World War II. Prompted by the need to supply U.S. troops with nutritious, flavorful foods that were not only easy to transport but also kept for long periods of time, scientists around 1940 began making great advances in the preparation, preservation, and packaging of foods. By the 1950s, food science and food technology departments were being established by many universities, and food science disciplines became important and respected areas of study.

Another boost to the food technology program came with the U.S. space program; new types of foods, as well as new types of preparation, packaging, and processing were needed to feed astronauts in space.

By the late 20th century, few people still canned or preserved their own fruits and vegetables. Advances in production methods in this century have made it possible to process larger quantities of a wider range of food products. Scientists specializing in food technology have found better ways to retard spoilage, improve flavor, and provide foods that are consistent in quality, flavor, texture, and size. Innovations such as freeze drying, irradiation, and artificial coloring and flavoring have changed the way many of the foods we eat are processed and prepared. Consumer demand for an ever-increasing variety of foods has created a demand for food technologists to develop them. Foods processed in a variety of ways are readily available to the consumer and have become such an accepted part of modern life that one rarely gives a thought to the complexities involved. The safety of the process, nutrition, development of new products and production methods, and the packaging of products are all the responsibility of food technologists.

THE JOB

Food technologists usually specialize in one phase of food technology. About one-third are involved in research and development. A large number are employed in quality-control laboratories or in the production or processing areas of food plants. Others teach or perform basic research in colleges and universities, work in sales or management positions, or are employed as technical writers or consultants. The branches of food technology are numerous and include cereal grains, meat and poultry, fats and oils, seafood, animal foods, beverages, dairy products, flavors, sugar and starches, stabilizers, preservatives, colors, and nutritional additives.

Food technologists in basic research study the structure and com position of food and observe the changes that take place during storage or processing. The knowledge they gain may enable them to develop new sources of proteins, determine the effects of processing on microorganisms, or isolate factors that affect the flavor, appearance, or texture of foods. Technologists engaged in applied research and development have the more practical task of creating new food products and developing new processing methods. They also continue to work with existing foods to make them more nutritious and flavorful and to improve their color and texture.

A rapidly growing area of food technology is biotechnology. Food technologists in this area work with plant breeding, gene splicing, microbial fermentation, and plant cell tissue cultures to produce enhanced raw products for processing.

Foods may lose their characteristics and nutritious value during processing and storage. Food technologists seek ways to prevent this by developing improved methods for processing, production, quality control, packaging, and distribution. They conduct chemical and microbiological tests on products to be sure they conform to standards set by the government and by the food industry. They also determine the nutritive content (the amounts of sugar, starch, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals) that federal regulations say must be printed on the labels.

Food technologists in quality-control laboratories concentrate on ensuring that foods in every stage of processing meet industry and government standards. They check to see that raw ingredients are fresh, sufficiently ripe, and suitable for processing. They conduct periodic inspections of processing line operations. They also test after processing to be sure that various enzymes are not active and that bacteria levels are low enough so the food will not spoil or be unsafe to eat.

Some technologists test new products in test kitchens or develop new processing methods in laboratory pilot plants. Others devise new methods for packaging and storing foods. To solve problems, they may confer with processing engineers, flavor experts, or pack aging and marketing specialists.

In processing plants, food technologists are responsible for pre paring production specifications and scheduling processing operations. They ensure that proper temperature and humidity levels are maintained in storage areas and that wastes are disposed of properly and other sanitary regulations are observed throughout the plant. They also make recommendations to management in matters relating to efficiency or economy, such as new equipment or suppliers.

Some food technologists have positions in other fields where they can apply their specialized knowledge to such areas as advertising, market research, or technical sales.


A food technologist (left) and researcher check fermentability of enzymatically milled corn. (Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture)

REQUIREMENTS

High School

You can prepare for a career in food technology by taking plenty of high school science courses. Be sure to take biology, chemistry, and physics. To get hands-on experience working with food, take family and consumer science classes. Four years of mathematics classes, English classes, computer science classes, and other college-preparatory courses are also important to take.

Postsecondary Training

Educational requirements for this field are high. Beginners need at least a bachelor’s degree in food technology, food science, or food engineering. Some technologists hold degrees in other areas, such as chemistry, biology, engineering, agriculture, or business, and nearly half have advanced degrees. Master’s degrees and doctorates are mandatory for college teaching and are usually necessary for management and research positions.

More than 45 schools in the United States, Canada, and Mexico offer the course work needed to become a food technologist, and many of these programs have been approved by the Institute of Food Technologists. See the institute’s Web site (http://www.ift.org) for approved school information. Typical courses include physics, biochemistry, mathematics, microbiology, the social sciences and humanities, and business administration as well as food technology courses including food preservation, processing, sanitation, and marketing. Most of these schools also offer advanced degrees, usually in specialized areas of food technology. To successfully complete their program, candidates for a master’s degree or a doctoral degree must perform extensive research and write a thesis reporting their original findings. Specialists in administrative, managerial, or regulatory areas may earn advanced degrees in business administration or in law rather than in food technology.

Other Requirements

Food technologists should have analytical minds and enjoy technical work. In addition, they must be able to express themselves clearly and be detail oriented. They also must be able to work well in group situations and participate and contribute to a team effort.

EXPLORING

Students may be able to arrange field trips to local food processing plants and plan interviews with or lectures by experts in the field. Apart from an interest in science, and especially chemistry, prospective food technologists may also develop interests in cooking and in inventing their own recipes.

Because of the educational requirements for food technologists, it is not likely that students will be able to acquire actual experience while still in high school. Part-time and summer employment as workers in food processing plants, however, would provide an excellent overview of the industry. More advanced college students may have opportunities for jobs helping out in research laboratories.

Typical Undergraduate Courses in Food Science

• Biochemistry

• Biology

• Calculus

• Food Analysis

• Food Chemistry

• Food Engineering

• Food Laws and Regulatory Processes

• Food Microbiology

• Food Processing

• Food Quality Assurance

• General Chemistry

• General Physics

• Mathematics

• Nutrition

• Statistics

• Organic Chemistry

• Physical Chemistry

EMPLOYERS

There are approximately 8,700 food technologists employed in the United States. Food technologists work in a wide variety of settings, including food processing plants, food ingredient plants, and food manufacturing plants. They may work in basic research, product development, processing and quality assurance, packaging, or market research. There are positions in laboratories, test kitchens, and on production lines as well as with government agencies.

STARTING OUT

Many schools offering degree programs in food science will also offer job placement assistance. Also, recruiters from private industry frequently conduct interviews on campus. Faculty members may be willing to grant referrals to exceptional students. Another method is to make direct application to individual companies.

Frequently, the food products with which food technologists work determine where they are employed. Those who work with meats or grains may work in the Midwest. Technologists who work with citrus fruits usually work in Florida or California. Two-thirds of all food technologists are employed by private industry and the rest work for the federal government. Some major government employers of food technologists include the Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

ADVANCEMENT

For food technologists with a bachelor’s degree, there are two general paths to advancement, depending on whether they work in production or in research. They may begin as quality-assurance chemists or assistant production managers and, with experience, move up to more responsible management positions. Some technologists may start as junior food chemists in the research and development laboratory of a food company and advance to section head or another research management position.

Technologists who hold master’s degrees may start out as food chemists in a research and development laboratory. Those with doctorates usually begin their careers in basic research or teaching. Other food technologists may gain expertise in more specialized areas and become sensory evaluation experts or food-marketing specialists.

EARNINGS

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings of food scientists and technologists were $53,810 in 2006. The highest paid workers earned more than $97,350, and the lowest paid earned less than $29,620.

The Institute of Food Technologists reports that its members earned a median salary of $73,150 in 2003. IFT members with a bachelor’s degree in food science earned a median salary of $65,000. Members with a master’s degree earned a median of $73,500, those with a Ph.D. earned a median of $85,000, and those with an M.B.A. degree earned a median of $95,000 a year.

Most food technologists will receive generous benefit plans, which usually include health insurance, life insurance, pension plans, and vacation and sick pay. Others may receive funds for continuing education.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Most food technologists work regular hours in clean, well-lighted, temperature-controlled offices, laboratories, or classrooms. Technologists in production and quality control who work in processing plants may be subject to machine noise and hot or cold conditions.

OUTLOOK

The food industry is the largest single industry in the United States and throughout the world. Because people have to eat, there will always be a need for people to develop, test, and process food products. In developed countries, the ever-present consumer demand for new and different food products means that food scientists and technologists will always be in demand.

Several factors have also created continuing demand for skilled technologists. New labeling laws enacted in the 1990s have required companies to provide detailed nutritional information on their products. The continuing trend toward more healthful eating habits has recently focused on the roles of fats, cholesterol, and salt in nutrition, and companies have rushed to create a variety of low-fat, low-sodium, fat-free, cholesterol-free, and sodium-free foods. A larger and more varied supply of wholesome and economical food is needed to satisfy current tastes. The food industry will have to produce convenience foods of greater quality for use in homes and for the food service institutions that supply airlines, restaurants, and other major customers. More technologists may be hired to research and produce new foods from modifications of wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans, such as the “meat” products made from vegetable proteins. The food industry has increased its spending in recent years for this kind of research and development and is likely to continue to do so. Developing these products, without sacrificing such important factors as taste, appearance, and texture, has produced many new opportunities for food technologists. Food technologists will also be sought to produce new foods for poor and starving people in underdeveloped countries. Experienced technologists will use their advanced training to create new foods from such staples as rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans.

An increasing focus on food safety and bio-security will also create demand for food technologists with knowledge of these practice areas.

Finally, the increasing emphasis on the automation of many elements of food processing has also created a need for food technologists to adapt cooking and preparation processes to the new technology.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For consumer fact sheets, information on issues in the food science industry, and food safety news, visit the association’s Web site or contact

Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association

1350 I Street, NW, Suite 300

Washington, DC 20005-3377

Tel: 202-639-5900

http://www.fpa-food.org

For information on accredited food science programs and to order the booklet Finding Your First Job in Food Science, visit the IFT’s Web site.

Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)

525 West Van Buren, Suite 1000

Chicago, IL 60607-3 830

Tel: 800-438-3663

Email: info@ift.org

http://www.ift.org

For national news on agriculture and food issues, contact:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250-0 002

http://www.usda.gov

For comprehensive information on careers, educational programs, and scholarships, visit

Careers in Food Science

http://school.discovery.com/foodscience/college_resources.html

INTERVIEW

Dr. Faye Wong, professor and head of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana— Champaign, discussed food science.

Q. Please tell us about your program.

A. Our Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) offers bachelor’s of science (B.S.), master’s of science (M.S.), and Ph.D. degrees in food science. We have approximately 50 students in our Institute of Food Technologists—approved B.S. degree program, and approximately 50 graduate students studying for M.S. or Ph.D. degrees. Visit http://www.fshn.uiuc.edu to learn more about the program.

Q. Can you tell us about the internship opportunities that are available to students at your school?

A. FSHN has close working relationships with many food companies located in the greater Chicago area, as well as with companies located nationally and internationally.

During the school year, our undergraduate and graduate students have the opportunity to attend many information sessions with recruiters who come to our department to give presentations about their companies. In the same visit, these recruiters interview our students for internships and for entry-level positions in the company. We strongly encourage our under graduate students to apply for summer internships, particularly after their sophomore and junior years because the experience, knowledge, and professional and interpersonal skills that the students acquire are a very valuable part of their education and preparation for future careers. Some graduate students, with the permission of their major professors, have the opportunity to participate in internships at food companies. At the end of the internship experience, some students receive job offers from the food company.

Q. What is one thing that young people may not know about a career in food science?

A. A career in food science can be in the food industry, in government agencies, and in academia.

The food industry is very exciting, fast paced, and presents an opportunity to contribute to the nutritional, convenience, safety, and environmental aspects of food products. Food science is about food and it is a science-based discipline, so employees in the food industry need to keep up with current research and regulations related to food.

Government agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, play important roles in ensuring the safety of our food supply. Positions can be focused on regulation/compliance or on research.

Universities also hire food scientists. As tenure-track faculty members (Ph.D. degree), food scientists engage in teaching, research, and outreach activities. As lecturers (M.S. or Ph.D. degrees), they will be involved in teaching and outreach activities. As lab technicians (B.S. or M.S. degrees), food scientists will be focused on research.

Q. What types of students pursue food science study in your program?

A. Students in our food science program are interested in food from the perspectives of food science, food technology, health aspects, and culinary applications. They enjoy the science, such as the chemistry and microbiology, and learning how principles in those disciplines apply to food systems.

Q. What advice would you offer food science majors as they graduate and look for jobs?

A. Most students pursue positions in the food industry. We advise that, while they are here in school, they should take the opportunity to develop their knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and ability to solve problems. We also encourage them to develop their professional and interpersonal skills: be familiar with computer programs; be adept at using basic laboratory and pilot plant equipment; and interpersonally, to know how to get along with others, work well on teams, develop leadership skills, write and speak well, behave professionally, and to have high ethical standards. Learning and practicing these skills are a part of our curriculum. We also emphasize that they should continue to learn for the rest of their careers.

Q. Are there any changes in this job market that students should expect?

A. It has become increasingly important for students to have an understanding of the different fields associated with the food industry. They should understand basic concepts of business, marketing, economics, food laws and regulations, and consumer trends. There is usually a steep learning curve during the first couple of years in a new job when entry-level employees pick up some of this information. Also, many students after they graduate will pursue a business degree in the evening while they are employed.

Students should not expect to be working with a single food commodity. In contrast to the past, today’s manufactured foods are usually a combination of several commodities—take pizza, for example! Students should also be nimble and be ready to experience company buyouts and mergers. They should expect that during their career, chances are that they will change jobs more than once.

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