A Day in the Life of a Food Scientist

I still sometimes find myself standing in a grocery store isle with a hearty smile as I watch people picking up products that I or my teams developed years ago. It’s like watching your children grow.

Roughly 70% of food materials that we eat everyday has been processed in some way by a food manufacturer. The rest of 30% is what we buy as unprocessed raw produce (fruits and vegetables)

It is said, and rightly so I think, that we are what we eat. From that perspective, food scientists have a very special role in our lives. Just have a look at grocery store shelves. From a simple product like a bottle of flavoured water to complex products like a high protein breakfast bar or a vegan egg, each product has been designed and developed by food scientists.

Food scientists have a very special role in our lives…

The four-year food science college course is designed to establish the basic disciplines of food science and technology. These disciplines include food composition, chemistry, rheology, engineering, microbiology, food safety and quality, packaging, sensory science, regulations and food laws, agriculture, and nutrition. However, as in any other field, the real tricks of the trade are learnt on the ground.

Being part of a productive team of product developers in a food manufacturing company and creating new food products can be thrilling experience

In most food companies, food scientists work on one or more of these four kinds of projects at any given time

Innovation

Creating breakthrough innovative product that disrupts the category and potentially creates a category of its own. This is often the result of a long-term vision and some newly developed enabling technology through deep fundamental research. For a food scientist this is the most exciting and rewarding kind of project. The best and most creative product developers are assigned these projects. By nature, these projects are extremely high risk and high reward

Renovation

Developing new products by utilizing the capabilities afforded by the breakthrough innovation. Although it creates new products and sometimes new categories, but it is seen as a natural extension of the true innovation. Risks and rewards are moderate

Line extension

Creating multiple versions of the same product by way of diversifying options in flavor, colour, pack sizes, health claims, etc. One driver here is to have a visually appealing and wide slot on the grocery shelf.

Introducing same product formats with new flavors may sound simple but it can be extremely time consuming and may require extensive sensory tests and shelf life studies. Although new products are created in this process, level of challenge and thus excitement is moderate at best. These projects fall under low risk and low reward category

Cost optimization

Within a year after a new product is successfully launched, procurement starts exploring ways to reduce bottom line by reducing COGS (cost of goods sold) without impacting food safety, quality or sensory attributes.

This cost reduction comes from sourcing cheaper materials (ingredients, packaging materials), streamlining process design, or reducing work hours per pound of production. Although it is driven by the procurement group, but all alternate ingredients have to be approved by R&D as well as Quality Assurance. This is an important initiative for productivity’s sake, however, for a food scientist it is the least exciting and least rewarding kind of project

10 keys to having a fruitful career as a food scientist and a product developer

In my 25-year career as a food scientist and a product developer, I’ve had numerous memorable breakthrough moments, as well as my fair share of many set backs. However, I can’t recall a single failure that eventually did not contribute in one way or another in a future success

Although product development principles apply to all industries and product categories, but my perspective draws specifically from my experiences as a food product developer

Below are the 10 things that I would do more of, to be a better food scientist

  1. Conduct mock reverse engineering exercises  

A simple and effective way to increase your product development skills is mock reverse engineering. This is a simple technique where you pick random commercial products and use the nutrition deck and ingredient statement to make an estimation of its formulation. Then try to create a prototype that matches all the pertinent nutritional and functional features of the product

Doing this exercise regularly will sharpen the mental muscles and will significantly increase the ability to predict what ingredients and process design could be required to build a certain product. You will also learn short cuts for sourcing ingredients, conducting critical analyses and establishing minimum acceptability criteria. This ability will decrease the development time significantly when real projects come your way

  1. Learn cross-linking for out of the box innovation

Cross-linking is a technique where you benchmark products outside of food. Research products in the automotive, pharmaceutical or construction industries, look at the packaging and physical structure of the products, and brainstorm to see which of those attributes can be applied back to foods. This will force the mind to think outside of the every day path and will generate new ideas resulting in disrupting new food products, potentially creating new to the market innovation

  1. Celebrate successes but remember failures

In my 25-year career as a product developer, I’ve had numerous memorable breakthrough moments, as well as my fair share of set backs. However, I can’t recall a single failure that eventually did not contribute in one way or another in a future success. Every failure opens doors for multiple future successes

  1. Gain exposure to commercial operations and processes

I spent the first four years of my career on the production floor, managing production lines and leading production staff and operations. Those 4 years gave me the perspective of the commercial operations, helped me immensely in being able to relate the bench top development work with the limitations and complexities of the production line

Formulating a marvel at bench-top is worthless if it cannot be scaled up to commercial production line. Understanding of the scale up operations instinctively guides the food scientist to conduct bench scale recipe work with the end in mind

Having worked with and hired many food scientists, the best ones, without exception, were the ones who had sound operational experiences

  1. Be resourceful in ingredients and technologies

In the field of food science, as in many others, it’s all about who you know. Go out of the way to get to know new ingredient technologies in the industry, whether it Is related to the projects on hand or not. Form connections with suppliers, consultants, subject matter experts, and technology innovators. More suppliers you know, better chance you will have in finding the right technology for the project in hand

  1. Never underestimate the power of food science basics

No matter how experienced you get, always keep abreast with the food science basics. With the speed of advances in food science and technology, you will be surprised how quickly your understanding of food science and innovation systems can get out of date

Be a lifelong student of your craft and keep replenishing your mental capacities through regular reading and training courses

  1. Dirty your hands as often as you can

Food product development is a science as well as an art. You can do the science through graphs and charts, data analyses, and technical reviews, but you cannot excel in art without touching, feeling, smelling and tasting the food. Your five senses should develop into sensitive analytical tools. I’ve seen brilliant food scientists climbing the management ladder and not finding the time to go in the lab and touching and feeling the product. As a result, they are unable to provide technical leadership and functional expertise, and thus lose the confidence in themselves as well as respect from their teams

  1. Learn to communicate with nontechnical partners

A big challenge that all food scientists face is effective communication with Marketing and other business partners. Scientists are generally not very comfortable communicating with non-technical folks. It takes significant command over the subject and exposure of team environment to learn the art of communicating technical thoughts with nontechnical audience

  1. Food shows and conferences

One excellent way to attain quick exposure to the industry and get to know the lay of the land is to attend food shows and industry conferences. Keep in mind that conferences and food shows have grown into multimillion-dollar money making rackets so choose your events wisely

Attending central and regional IFT (institute of food technology) shows once a year is a safe bet. The show allows you to connect with food scientists from around the world, and is a great venue to connect with suppliers, customers, consultants and subject matter expert in all fields of food business

  1. Patent review

Develop a habit of reviewing patents published in the area of your intellectual interest. Regular review of patent applications broadens the intellectual mind and instills a sense of scientific curiosity and respect for the very act of pursuing scientific inquiry. It also provides a benchmark for future innovation road maps and potential inventions. You also learn what product design parameters are off limits due to prior patents and what technological doors may be opening up as patents expire

Always keep your eyes open to the potential opportunity of securing your intellectual property through patents and business secrets

In conclusion, realize the historic significance of the opportunity that you have as a practicing food scientist and strive to be the best in creating tasty, healthful, and environmentally sustainable foods for yourself, your loved ones and the community

Be the consumer that wish to serve. Keep food safety and quality at the top of mind in every product that you create. If it is not good enough for your children, it is not good enough for your customer.

Author: Asim Syed CFS

Asim Syed is the Director of Food applications R&D at Brenntag North America, where his team’s mission is to provide formulation and product development expertise to the food companies, and to help them resolve functional challenges by utilizing new, innovative and clean label solutions

Asim is a 25-year veteran of the food industry, having led various research and development teams at companies like Unilever, Land O’ Lakes, ConAgra Foods, Dow Food Solutions and Beyond Meat. He and his teams have commercialized for than 100 new products for the retail, food service and CPG markets

Asim holds Masters’ degrees in Food Science and Analytical Chemistry. He has authored 3 book chapters on food applications and oils & fats technologies, and has several patents to his credit. He has given numerous talks at IFT and other food conferences, and publishes articles regularly on management and innovation

Since last 15 years, Asim’s research focus has been clean label alternatives and plant-based food solutions, to address the growing consumer concerns around health & wellness, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability


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