Instrumentation Specialist, Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate
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.
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.
Chemists in the food sciences do these things and more!
Here are some specific areas for careers in food science:
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 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.
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.
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.
Industrial sector employers include:
Kraft Foods Group, PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate, The Coca-Cola Company,Quaker Oats Company, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, Hershey's Heinz, and Nestle
Academic research programs include:
Kansas State University, North Dakota State University, Cornell University; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Iowa State University; University of Maine, University of Nebraska, and Texas A&M
Nonprofit employers include:
Center for Science in the Public Interest
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.
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.
A bachelor’s degree is required for most jobs in product development. A graduate degree is required for research positions.