I’m a Food Scientist, No One In The Food Industry Is Trying To Kill You!

Food science is as fun as it sounds. I knew I was in the right major when my introductory class included a cheese tasting. I take a wide range of classes like organic chemistry, microbiology, food analysis, food law, and food processing. Sounds fun, right? Well, for me it is.

Food Grads GraduatesThese classes train food science students for a wide range of careers. Some people end up leading quality assurance in a plant and others work for the FDA; some do research in the field, too. And yes, we are responsible for the research that made your Oreos taste like pumpkin spice (you’re welcome).

The media devotes a whole lot of time talking about the “good” and the “bad” when it comes to new food. I’d like to settle the score on a few common food misconceptions that I’ve learned through my classes.

Processed Foods Aren’t Bad

When you think of processed foods, you probably think of junk food and microwave meals. The real definition of processed foods may be a little different to everyone. The way society and the media use the word isn’t the way scientists use it, which brings about different meanings to a seemingly simple concept.

In the world of food science, processing a food means changing something about the food. Baby carrots are a processed food. They are processed in a facility that cuts down the carrots into the size and shape of a baby carrot. Any food that is altered in a plant is technically considered “processed,” whether you agree with it or not.

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Food processing is essential to all food products. Without it, you wouldn’t have pasteurized milk, grain separators, or properly washed and packaged produce.

There are better ways to more accurately define foods that you think of as processed. If you tend to think foods that are high in sugar, fat, or salt as processed, then identify them with those characteristics. Processing isn’t inherently bad.

We’re Not Adding Poison to Your Food

It sort of baffles me when I read something about a toxin or poison being added to food. I don’t necessarily believe that all added ingredients are good for you, but the media really pushes the idea that scientists love adding deadly crap to your food.

I promise no one is trying to kill you. The food industry needs consumers to live in order to sell their food. Harsh, but true. Companies want to form a good relationship with consumers so they continuously buy their products. They can’t do this if they’re making people sick.

And It’s Really, Really Hard to Add Anything to Food

The FDA regulates food additives and colours so strictly that it’s nearly impossible for someone to wake up tomorrow and decide they want to start putting some new chemical in a food. There’s a petition process that, on average, takes 24 months from submission to approval.

When the FDA is given a petition for new food additives, whether they be of natural or artificial sources, the substance is put through rigorous tests. They look at the substance’s properties, health effects, safety factors, and the amount that would actually be consumed.

Above all else, they evaluate the function of the additive. If the substance does not serve some significant purpose in the food, it will not be allowed. They then regulate what foods it can be used in, how much can be used, and how it should appear on the label. Companies aren’t allowed to use ingredients that aren’t deemed absolutely necessary for their product.

The FDA states that they always use the best science available to determine if a substance is safe for consumption. If new information is discovered, they will go back and reevaluate the additive. Between all of this, companies can’t get away with adding stuff to your food that would harm you when consumed in the correct amounts.

But I’m Also Not a Nutritionist

I may have a little more knowledge on the subject of nutrition and health because of my own personal experiences, and a lot of people in food science minor or double major in nutrition, but strictly speaking, food scientists are not nutritionists.

We like to say we care about food before it goes in you and nutritionists care about it after. That doesn’t mean we don’t care how healthy a product is. A lot of people in food science believe strongly in the principles of healthy food and choose to work with companies that align with their values. Others just love to work with food.

I worked with a soda product over the summer yet I rarely drink soda myself because of the sugar content. I know some people love soda as a treat, and so does the industry, so they’ll continue to make it. Just because we make a product doesn’t mean it’s right, nutritionally speaking, for you.

It’s not a secret that the food industry makes products that aren’t healthy. I know the “junk” we produce has no nutritional value, but it’s up to consumers to make the decision to eat those things. Just because we make something doesn’t mean we think you should eat it every day.

I’m not qualified to tell you what to eat or what’s good for you. I do know some people perceive food scientists as evil dudes in lab coats pumping chemicals into your potato chips or Lean Cuisine.

As someone who chose food science because of a passion for healthy foods, it makes me sad when someone assumes coming up with new chemicals to insert in foods is my career goal.

Food scientists use a range of technologies and ingredients to ensure the food you eat is the safest it can be. From organic produce to cupcakes, it all requires highly regulated processing and formulation. Without consumers, the food industry is nothing. We really do work with the consumer’s best interests in mind, and I hope no one ever persuades you otherwise.

Written by: Elena Bailoni

Elena is a junior studying Food Science at Purdue University;

I hope to one day work for a company that helps consumers make nutritious and healthful eating decisions with the products they make. My ultimate goal is to one day work in product research and design so I can make those products that will improve the lives of the people that eat them.

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Please leave your comments below 🙂

  • rachel zemser

    Great article by Elena– After 25 years in the food industry I am still having fun, love creating products and enjoying everything about my job! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/532413aeff76a349071e2c9cce027d7adf311e2d486427c4db2442e278e32483.jpg

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  • Namita Badyal

    Great article and well written .. Gave me a good laugh and surely has very valid points. Absolutely love the title .. Thanks for posting.

  • Nandita Makharia

    A very well written article…Great job! Loved reading it, I m a food scientist too…It will help me answer similar questions too😃

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, please feel free too share it with your network 🙂

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  • FER

    I am a food scientist myself, worked for the food industry (kraft and Pepsico) for +10 years and left my prominent career due to congruency and to become a food activist.

    Excuse my spelling/grammar/typos but English isn’t my first language.

    In essences, you are correct in everything you say, including the part when you state that “We like to say we care about food before it goes in you and nutritionists care about it after” and that is exactly the other perspective: you (food scientists) know little (and care little) about the interaction of food additives in the human body (and not only the interaction of one ingredient but the combination of them and even the synergies between them. In addition, when you formulate you pay little attention or warn about potential bioaccumulation). Those are terms that the industry knows very well but do not communicate to consumers.

    It is not secret that real food components and food additives act very differently in the human body but consumers know little about it (ie.magnesium in cacao is very different compared to magnesium oxide or magnesium glycerinate). Consumers are not food experts and they just trust blindly in “food scientists” and you/we are feeding them lies (digas lo que digas).

    It is very confortable to say that “just because we make something doesn’t mean we think you should eat it every day” and you are correct, consumers are adults and are responsible for their health…. in the same way that you could be responsible and manufacture products with the same quality of ingredients in every country (but you don’t because it costs money and it impacts the bottom line) .. expamples I have plenty because as I said, I worked in the food industry for several years (both in operations as well as marketing and sales).

    you said it also ” I know some people love soda as a treat, and so does the industry, so they’ll continue to make it”… companies care about their bottom lines and they have to report to shareholders. they will continue to produce and sell crap even if the planet is being destroyed (and it is). This is why we ought to vote with our dollars and force you to raise the bar and make better products, use better ingredients, use less food additives and do it sustainably and fairly!!!

    Have you ever googled “revolving doors and the food industry”?? well, you should, at least to have a MORE COMPLETE perspective.

    • Stevie Masterson

      A food scientist who is also an operations professional, and marketing professional and sales professional, all in +10 years… ok. That is quite a lot of changing of hats for a “food scientist”.