Food Chemistry

Opportunities

  • Agricultural Chemists
  • Animal Scientists
  • Flavor Chemists (“Flavorists”)
  • Food Chemists
  • Nutritional Chemists
  • Molecular Gastronomist
  • Soil and Plant Chemists

Education

A bachelor’s degree is required for most jobs in product development. A graduate degree is required for research positions.


 

Salaries

  • Median annual wage: $58,070 (2012)







Overview

Most of us are unaware of the science behind the food we consume. For example, how many people know why fresh pineapple prevents Jell-O from setting, but canned pineapple has no effect? While food science involves chemistry, biology, physics, biochemistry, microbiology, nutrition, and engineering, the major portion of a food science curriculum is chemistry.

Food Chemist

Food chemists develop and improve foods and beverages and analyze methods of heat processing, canning, freezing, and packaging. They also study the effects of processing on the appearance, taste, aroma, freshness, and vitamin and mineral content of food. Some food chemists are involved in testing samples to ensure compliance with food safety standards, while others experiment with new foods, additives, and preservatives. Food chemists work with everything from raw agricultural materials to consumer end-use products.

In basic research, food chemists study the properties of proteins, fats, starches, and carbohydrates, as well as microcomponents such as additives and flavorants, to determine how each works in a food system. In applications research, they often develop new ways to use ingredients or new ingredients altogether, such as fat or sugar replacements.

  • Who makes premium ice cream taste so smooth and creamy?
  • Who gets rid of pests without poisoning our water?
  • Who makes healthy cereal appealing to eat?

Chemists in the food sciences do these things and more. Here are some specific areas for careers in food science:

  • Agricultural Chemists
    What they do:
    Help develop new chemicals to increase crop production and yield, defend against pests, and protect the environment.
  • Animal Scientists
    What they do: Conduct research concerning animal nutrition, work for more efficient means of food production by studying animal genetics, nutrition, reproduction, diseases, and growth.
  • Flavor Chemists (“Flavorists”)
    What they do: Use knowledge of the chemistry of food ingredients, instrumental analysis, and creativity to create new and improved flavors.
  • Food Chemists
    What they do:
    Help with processing, packaging, preserving, storing, and distributing foods and drinks to make them safe, economical, and appealing for consumers. Flavor chemists use natural or artificial ingredients, sometimes in combination, to develop flavors.
  • Nutritional Chemists
    What they do:
    Perform research on the physical and chemical properties of nutrients and how Mother Nature packages them in the foods that we enjoy every day.
  • Molecular Gastronomist
    What they do: A relatively new subdiscipline of food science, concerned with applying scientific principles to the practice of cooking
  • Soil and Plant Chemists
    What they do: Examine the scientific composition of soil and its effects on plant growth and develop methods to conserve and manage it. Closely aligned with environmental science.

Education

A four-year undergraduate degree in chemistry, biology, or food science is a typical starting point and is sufficient for most jobs in product development. Many people go on to earn a master’s degree in food science. A Ph.D. in food science is required for those who want to teach or conduct basic research.

The Institute of Food Technologists has approved 50 schools with food science programs (usually in the agriculture department), including well-known programs at the Universities of Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota, as well as at Cornell University (NY), Rutgers (NJ), and the University of California, Davis.


Certification

Certification can be a long process. For example, to become a member of the Society of Flavor Chemists, you must pass a five-year apprenticeship with a flavor house, as well as a written and oral test. Becoming a certified member with voting rights requires a seven-year apprenticeship with oral and written tests.

The Institute of Food Technologists developed a Certified Food Scientist credential in 2012. In order to take the exam, you must have a bachelor’s degree in a related science and six years of full-time work experience (advanced degrees reduce the number of years of experience required).

The American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS) and the Soil Science Society of American (SSSA) offer certifications for agricultural and food scientists. Certification requires education, experience, and passing an examination. Certification is only required in some states but is recognized by professionals throughout the profession.


Workspace

Tim Garrett at work

Food chemists are employed mainly by industry, both in food-processing and ingredient supply companies. Food chemists also work for government agencies at the local and federal level, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food chemists who work for the government do basic research as well as study nutritional value and safety. In general, food chemists in academia conduct most of the basic research, while industry carries out more applications work.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

Food and flavor chemists can be described as curious, outgoing people who are attracted by the creative aspect of the field. Motivation and tenacity are important qualities, along with better-than-average senses of smell and taste. A good odor memory is also helpful. For flavor chemists, creativity is essential.

Even in tough economic times, people need to eat, so the food business is more stable than many other industries. Training in the flavor industry is geared toward developing creativity, as well as acquiring knowledge of the chemistry of flavor ingredients and the instrumental analysis techniques involved in making and analyzing flavors. Many love the challenge, creativity, and variety of their work.


Technical Skills

  • A strong understanding of organic chemistry.
  • Careful observation of samples, data, and changes over time is often required.
  • Decision-making skills are also important, as well as the ability to look at the bigger picture and see how their data can, or should, impact the food supply, farms, or other agricultural or food products.
  • Food chemists use critical thinking to determine the best way to get the data they need, and data analysis skills are used to interpret the results.
  • Interpersonal skills are required to work with others, and communication skills are needed to share the methods, results, and implications of their findings. Food chemists must also be able to communication directions effectively to technicians and assistants

Career Path

Since food science touches so many aspects of our lives, there are many areas into which food chemists can effectively transition. Food chemists’ career paths are guided by the area they choose to work in, such as regulatory, processing, quality assurance, or research and development. They might choose to work in one area for a while and then later specialize in a different area or maybe even start their own food processing and scientific testing company. Food chemists who work for the government may move from laboratory positions to management level positions.  


Future Employment Trends

Slower than average job growth is expected for food science technicians, and significantly slower than average growth for agricultural and food scientists.

Food scientists are optimistic about future job prospects despite significant downsizing in industry. Trends in processed foods, such as developments in nutraceuticals and functional foods (e.g., orange juice that's been fortified with calcium for bone health), should keep the demand for trained food chemists steady. Food ingredient supply companies are likely to have more jobs available than those that process food since the processors have been shifting research responsibilities to their suppliers. Much of the job growth over the next 10 years is expected to come from food inspection positions with various governmental agencies.

Real-World Chemists
Tim Garrett

Tim Garrett is an instrumentation specialist at Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate, where he runs a small analytical lab using high-performance liquid chromatography.

More about Tim


Benjamin Chambers

Benjamin Chambers drinks beer at 9 am every work day morning at MillerCoors, and gets paid for it.  (No, that’s not his whole job.)

More about Benjamin


LaTonya Mitchell

LaTonya Mitchell’s job as district director in the Denver district of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is to protect the public health.

More about LaTonya


Related Resources  

ACS Webinars

  • The Chemistry of Cheese and Why We Love It
  • Love Food as well as Chemistry?

Watch and learn with these free, on-demand webinars from the ACS’ Food Chemistry Channel.

Podcasts

From ACS’s award-winning podcast series, “Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions”:

Articles

Professional Organizations

Labor Statistics

Food Chemistry Quiz
  • Take This Fun Food Chemistry Quiz
    Do you know about the chemistry of foods? Here's your chance to test your knowledge. Can you answer all 10 multiple choice questions correctly?