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 production and processing of the food we consume. However, nothing is more important to humans than having enough nutritious food to eat. While agricultural and food science is multidisciplinary by its very nature, chemistry is nearly always at the core of the work involved.

Food Chemist

Agricultural and food chemists delve into all aspects of crop and animal production, food safety, quality, nutrition, processing, packaging, and utilization of materials including bioenergy. Their common goal is to produce sufficient nutritious food and feed to support the population in a sustainable way while being responsible stewards of our environment and ecosystem. The actual work can entail the grand or the mundane, but the importance of their shared mission provides a sense of responsibility and satisfaction in the role of their work in society.

In basic research, agricultural and 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

Agricultural chemists may work entirely in the laboratory or frequently in the field.  Many chemists love the chance to work outside to collect food or environmental samples, or check on the progress of their field trials. There is satisfaction to work with nature and the process and materials it provides. Food chemists are employed mainly by industry, both in food-processing and ingredient supply companies. Many 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). 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, and government research tends to be more applied and service oriented, whereas industry seeks to develop and sell products and services.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

Agricultural and food 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 a sense of purpose to serve society. Food and flavor chemists need better-than-average senses of smell and taste and a good odor memory.
For agricultural chemists, creativity and innovation are also essential to help meet increasing food production demands, but also a strong awareness of current practices is required because the risk of implementing an unsuccessful new approach can be catastrophic.

Even in tough economic times, people need to eat, so the agricultural and food fields are more stable than many other areas. Nearly everyone in this area of work loves the challenge, creativity, and importance of their work.


Technical Skills

  • A strong foundational understanding of all brances of chemistry is needed in all positions involving agricultural and food chemistry, and in many positions, interdisciplinary knowledge of agronomy, ecology, entomology, soil science, biology, microbiology, environmental sciences, engineering, or other fields of science will be useful.
  • 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. The results of their work could impact the food supply, farms, international trade, business, regulatory agencies, and human and environmental health.
  • 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 their findings with colleagues and the public at various knowledge levels.

Career Path

Since agricultural and food science touches so many aspects of our lives, there are many areas into which chemists in the field can effectively transition. Career paths are guided by the area they choose to work in, such as food production, environmental stewardship, regulatory, processing, quality assurance, bioenergy 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 business. Chemists who work for the government or industry may move from laboratory positions to management level positions.  


Future Employment Trends

Steady growth is projected as food testing by contract labs has increased by 15% per year for the past 5 years and the Food Safety Modernization Act is starting to take effect which will lead to even more testing.

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.In addition, FDA and USDA are shifting (or seeking to shift) more of the inspection task to the private sector, including importer/exporters as industry bears responsibility for the safety and quality of their product.

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

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?