I wanted to do more of these interviews, starting late last year with my interview of Kura’s owner, Huey, but I have failed. I want to do more, so let me know if you like these and I’ll definitely make a bigger effort to do them! Here goes my second of hopefully many more to come.
I have a scientist friend. Her title is legitimately “Scientist” on LinkedIn (how cool is that?) and she’s my favorite kind of scientist… a food scientist. Meet Christine. She studied Food Science and Packaging Science in college (wish I had my shit together back then) and now tastes and tests and creates all kinds of crazy stuff for PepsiCo. Oh, and that photo is from her engagement shoot with her now hubby. Good choice of a prop to show off the rings. Definitely my kind of girl! She was nice enough to entertain all my curiosities about her job and answer some questions for us. Check it out!
Okay, first of all, how the hell did you know you wanted to study food science in college? I feel like most people probably didn’t even know a major like that existed at 18 years old.
Me neither!! I had no idea what Food Science was until I was at a crossroads as a freshman in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I started off the Pre-Pharmacy track in my undergrad studies. I wasn’t extremely passionate about it, and all I knew was I’d probably have a pretty stable career. After an intense first semester of taking Chemistry, Biology and Physics and talking with a few people who were already in the Pharmacy program I knew it wasn’t for me and I would probably be pretty miserable if I kept going. The plan was to go the “exploratory” route and figure it out later, but many days of walking past the Food Science and Human Nutrition building on my way to the dining hall had me curious. I wasn’t huge on Nutrition or Dietetics, because honestly I really didn’t care too much about “Health & Nutrition”. I am not one to tell people what they should or should not eat, it’s really their choice at the end of the day. But what is Food Science? Does it have anything to do with culinary? I loved all things food but I know I didn’t want to be a chef. I stopped in and talked with an advisor, and he had me sold within the first 5 minutes. Food Science is defined as “the discipline in which the engineering, biological, and physical sciences are used to study the nature of foods, the causes of deterioration, the principles underlying food processing, and the improvement of foods for the consuming public” as defined by the Institute of Food Technologists. It is such a broad field that really did not limit me to just one specialized path, and he assured me that humankind will always be eating food so there will never be a shortage of jobs. He was completely right! It is an extremely high demand field with a very wide reach globally, and even now is projected to grow at least 9% from 2012 to 2022 (according to US Dept of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics).
What kinds of classes did you take? What was school like?
After I got my core math and science classes out of the way, school was pretty awesome. The curriculum consisted of courses and labs like Food Analysis, Food Chemistry, Food Regulations, Food Engineering, Food Microbiology and Product Development. My university days were quite some time ago, (6 years ago already!!) but one of the labs I remembered best was making my own yogurt and sauerkraut in Food Microbiology using live cultures and fermentation. We also learned about the many types of food borne illness like E.coli O157:H7 easily tainting ground meat. Just one strain can infect hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground, homogenized meat. There was also Listeria that could be found almost anywhere–in soil, water, animal products, deli meats gah! Did it make me scared to eat? Sure. Learning about what really happens in the food industry is a little scary, but there are many other things in life that are just as scary if not more. I felt more informed than anything and that contributed to me becoming a germaphobe… I mean more aware of food safe practices.
What does being a scientist mean in the food world?
It could mean all sorts of things. A degree in Food Science can take you down the route of Food Manufacturing, Quality Assurance, Sensory and Product Insights, Product Development, Flavor Development, Engineering, Supply Chain, Food Safety, etc. a Food Scientist could work for industry, the government (i.e. FDA or USDA), academia, etc.
What does a typical day at work look like?
In my career, I went down a more specialized route in Sensory and Consumer Science. I study people’s perception of a stimuli (in my case, a beverage product) through their 5 senses – sight, smell, taste, touch and sound. This field is separated into effective (which is more analytical) and affective (liking and preference) testing. Effective testing is similar to what wine connoisseurs do when they swirl their glasses, take a little sip and say it has “deep garnet hues, with a brilliant red sparkle, an intense nose of red fruits and herbaceous undertones”. We have a bunch of people who go through up to 10-15 years of training sit in a room for 4 hours every single day and do exactly that on our prototypes. Just instead of a glass with wine, they are 5 ounce plastic cups of soda. This exercise is called Descriptive Profiling, and the methods for that test have been standardized globally into 2 main methodologies. What these people do help guide our flavorists and developers know more about the detailed descriptions of their products, holistically and teased all the way down to the single flavor attributes.
Favorite products that you’ve worked on?
In my previous job, I worked on ice cream. I got to do quality matching, train the employees on tasting different flavors, textures and kinds of ice cream and even go to the ice cream plant to adjust the formulation during the trial run to get it just right. It was an overnight trial so I was tasting ice cream all night long over a span of 10 hours. Amaze-balls (with a slight tummy ache and exhaustion but totally worth it!) My favorite flavor was black walnut, SO good!
Can anyone be a food scientist? Or do you have to have super power taste buds (which I know you do)?
Sure! I know many people who studied Chemistry, Biology (basic sciences) or Engineering who ended up working in the food industry or move on to a higher degree getting a MS or PhD in Food Science. We train tasters aside from the people who work on the products to get unbiased objective feedback and check in with consumers to tell us what works and doesn’t work, so being a super-taster is certainly not required. Most people, even among normal tasters, can become experts simply by practice.
In a few sentences, can you explain what taste is? What does “taste good” even mean to you, as a scientist? It feels subjective to me but I’m sure there is chemistry behind it!
It is extremely subjective, and taste preferences can change by background, ethnicity, gender, age and even mood. Everyone has a unique number of taste receptors on their tongue (the tiny pink dots throughout your tongue) and typically younger children will have more of them. This is why kids love sweet foods so much. Also, what we eat based on culture and traditions can also mold our taste preferences and how we were brought up around the foods we eat. Even in the my field and the science and medical world, the equation to taste preferences is a fascinating mystery but there definitely is a lot of chemistry behind it. The complexities of the chemistry of the food ingredient or product can also affect taste preferences. Every single food component is broken down into chemicals and complex molecules that define and make up its color, aroma and flavor. Even when a certain food product gets processed or heated, it could catalyze into a whole other compound to give off a different aroma or flavor. For example, when you are toasting some bread or cooking up a steak on a grill that is the Maillard Reaction which in layman’s terms is browning due to the sugars present in the food. This is why beef tartare tastes so different from a burger patty. There have been tons of studies and research on the human tongue, flavors and tastes as well as the chemistry of food. Flavor and perfume companies are the experts in truly understanding even down to the single molecule of food, plants, aromas and flavors. The really fascinating thing is how aromas and flavors can be replicated based on the components and molecules.
How much of your job do you spend… tasting…
15% of my job requires tasting. 30% meeting with cross functional teams for the projects I work on. 25% is coming up with sensory or consumer testing plans and methodologies. 30% is coordinating with testing agencies and suppliers. So it’s really not even all that much tasting. However, people who are product developers or even those in quality control do need to taste a lot everyday as it is an essential part of their job. It is important to developing balanced and the best tasting products. Larger companies will typically test final prototypes by the masses and statistically evaluate the population sample to determine the right products to launch are tailored appropriately to the consumers preferences.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
I really love what I do right now in terms of studying people’s responses and behaviors to a stimuli. Eventually, I would like to be a consultant and work on various types of products outside of food/beverages. This could be personal care, cosmetics, fragrances, even clothing! All of these industries require Sensory and Consumer testing as well, and I am one who tends to enjoy change and likes to diversify my experiences.
Any foods you absolutely love or hate? Why?
I love exotic fruits and am so fascinated by nature’s flavor and texture database. To me fruit is so diverse and unique on its own. My most recent discovery was the Physalis, which I would describe as a tiny yellow tomato that has tart and sweet attributes wrapped in translucent veiny leaves. You could say it resembles a small tomatillo by physical appearance, but does not taste anything like it. I had never seen it before in the U.S. but found it common in the UK used as a dessert/pudding garnish. Some of my other all time favorites are Mangosteens, Dragonfruit, Rambutan, Lychees, Cherimoya, I could go on and on. In terms of foods I hate, I cannot really think of anything. Favorite guilty pleasure food: I would have to say popcorn. I grew up loving popcorn and could eat bags of it at a time. Can’t really explain why I love it so much, I just do. Sometimes it’s my dinner when I am too lazy to cook. There was some bad press around diacetyl, the chemical component of artificial butter flavor that was found to be carcinogenic several years ago so I now pop my own popcorn in a pan and season it myself. It’s usually just a little bit of salt and pepper, but whenever I get free seasoning samples from work I use it as toppings. The best I have ever had was buffalo popcorn.
Weirdest thing you love to eat:
My dad’s Shanghainese red-cooked stewed pig feet with tofu. The fatty skin practically melts in the mouth! Delicious!! I also LOVE fish heads. Most people leave it to throw away, but I think it has the most flavor. I like to suck out the eyes… weird right? Maybe it’s just because I’m Chinese.
Food you cannot live without:
Authentic Asian food… this includes Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc. I went 6 months living in the middle of England without really good authentic Asian food that doesn’t take like cardboard and I was close to dying. Literally!
Favorite cuisine and why:
The previous answer applies for this one too. I love that real Asian foods have a lot more variety in fresh vegetables – green veggies especially, different kinds of meats, SEAFOOD and various ways of eating grains like rice, noodles, buns, pastries, pancakes, etc. I get so bored of the usual chicken or beef and broccoli, carrots, celery, mushrooms that I see in the mainstream American grocery stores. It can get so mundane day after day. Given this, I do love to eat and try all different kinds of cuisines.