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.
These 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.
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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