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Food Chemist


Food chemistry studies the chemistry of foods, their deterioration, and the principles underlying the improvement of foods for the eating public. Chemistry is applied to the development, processing, packaging, preservation, storage and distribution of foods and beverages for the purposes of obtaining a safe, economical, and esthetically pleasing supply of food for people worldwide.

Food chemists investigate the chemical, microbiological, physical and sensory nature of food, and apply their knowledge in the development, processing, preserving, packaging, distributing and storing of foodstuffs. They study the properties of proteins, starches, fat and carbohydrates to determine how each works in a food system. Also, they come up with new ways that ingredients can be used, or with wholly new ingredients altogether, such as chemical fat or sugar replacements like NutraSweet. Flavor chemists develop flavors that contribute to the overall food system. They do this using a combination of natural and artificial ingredients.

Food chemists develop ways to process and improve the quality of food and beverage products. They specialize in production, quality control, marketing, or research and development. They need to know about food and drink products, food processing and production methods, and hygiene and quality standards. Food chemists may work in research, processing and product development or management. Some may design and analyze methods of cooking, canning, freezing and packaging, and study the effect of processing on their appearance, taste, aroma, freshness, and vitamin content of the food. They also test samples to make sure foods and beverages meet food laws and experiment with new foods, additives, and preservatives. Food chemistry encompasses activities from agricultural raw materials to consumer end-use products.

Food chemists often talk about their work as an art and emphasize the creativity involved. In the flavor industry, chemists develop creative products with their knowledge of the chemistry of flavor ingredients and the instrumental analysis techniques involved in making flavors. During the long spanning career of a flavorist, they keep tasting notebooks and learn the characteristics of flavor materials individually and in blends. They do a great deal of tasting because they can tell what ingredients often need to be added or taken out.

Similarly, food chemists that work for ingredient supply companies also must know a great deal about adding and deleting ingredients and flavors, thickeners and stabilizers. They must know how ingredients function together and how they can solve some basic food processing problems. For example, when making a home-made salad dressing, since oil does not emulsify well with vinegar, scientists may suggest adding an egg and the oil at the end of the process so that the liquid does not separate. Finally, new trends in food products, such as the effort to reduce fat content, will keep industry job growth steady.
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  Interests and Skills  
Food chemists must be able to work under pressure, as they often have to meet to tight deadlines. They must be accurate in carrying out tests and assessments, and they should have a practical approach to their work. They also need to be patient and persistent, as it can take months of trials to produce a new product or improve an existing one. A creative and open-minded approach is also helpful.

They are usually curious, outgoing people who were originally attracted to food chemistry by the creative aspect of the food industry. Motivation and tenacity are important qualities along with a better than average sense of smell and taste. A good odor memory is also helpful. Nevertheless, good instincts are helpful in this profession, which cannot be learned in school.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study the structure and composition of food and the changes foods undergo in storage and processing
  • Develop new sources of compounds, such as proteins or sugar substitutes
  • Search for factors that affect the flavor, texture or appearance of foods
  • Develop new processing methods and new or improved foods to create healthier and safer food products with a longer shelf life
  • Work closely with technicians, technologists, other scientists and with marketing personnel
  • Check raw ingredients for maturity or stability for processing and finished products for safety, quality and nutritional value
  • Develop quality assurance programs, inspect processing operations, develop and improve packaging and storage methods, or conduct product analysis
  • Develop production specifications and schedule processing operations
  • Evaluate processing and storage operations in plants and work with engineers and plant operators
  • Make test samples of food products
  • Supervise and advise on processing and packaging operations
  • Ensure that products meet specifications and government health standards
  • Improve the quality of products
  • Food chemists perform most of their work in a laboratory, which is often set up like a kitchen, with ovens, blenders and other cooking equipment. Some travel to meet with clients or to work with other scientists or technicians in factories, where conditions may be noisy, hot, cold, smelly or messy. There is no such thing as a typical day for a food chemist as they usually perform a number of tasks each day. Food chemists often work more than average workweek hours as the job requires creative dedication and research.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Food scientists generally work for any company that is involved in the food and beverage processing and manufacturing industry. Therefore, this includes processing companies, ingredient supply companies, baking and confectionery companies, dairy, meat, fish, fruit and vegetable companies and the brewing and wine industry. Retail food chains employ food scientists to develop food safety programs. Many are employed by all levels of government, in food and drug administration and safety, agriculture and nutrition departments. Finally, many work in the academic world, performing research and teaching at the postsecondary level.

  Long Term Career Potential  
With experience, food chemists can move into supervisory or administrative positions in the areas of quality assurance, inspection and regulation. They may decide to move into marketing and sales departments or start their own food processing and scientific testing companies. Those who work for the government may advance from laboratory positions to management level positions. A master's or PhD may be required for advancement. Research and teaching positions at universities and technical institutes also require PhDs.

  Educational Paths  
The bare minimum education requirement for food chemists is a four-year bachelor's degree in a related discipline such as food science, biochemistry, chemistry or microbiology. Advancement opportunities are best for those who have a related master's degree. A PhD is usually required for independent research positions, university teaching positions and executive positions in companies.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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