What is Food Science?

While I have already written a couple of food chemistry articles, I am now going to take a step back and define food science. According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT):

Food Science is the discipline in which biology, physical sciences, and engineering are used to study the nature of foods, the causes of their deterioration, and the principles underlying food processing.

Food Technology is the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe, nutritious, and wholesome food (link).

Food science and food technology are used interchangeably as there is rarely any distinction between them. While it is more likely that a food technologist would be working in industry rather than at research, all food scientists & technologists are concerned with the science required to understand and improve our food supply.

Wikipedia has another definition:

Food science is a discipline concerned with all technical aspects of food, beginning with harvesting or slaughtering, and ending with its cooking and consumption. It is considered one of the agricultural sciences, and is usually considered distinct from the field of nutrition.

While both these definitions do start to explain what food science it, there are still some misunderstandings. Food scientists are not nutritionists. I like to joke that food scientists’ interests in food stops once it reaches a consumer’s mouth, as that is our measure of success. Actually, it should reach your mouth on more than one occasion. You need to like the food product enough to want to eat it again, but is doesn’t necessarily need to be healthy or nutritious. We do care if it is safe; that is not contain harmful bacteria or toxins. (The issues as to whether an unhealthy food, such as a high fat food, is unsafe are topics for another day and probably another blog.)

Neither are we or involved in food service or any kind of food preparation. This is changing slightly with the Research Chefs Association’s Culinology® program. True food scientists do not necessarily need to know how to cook or even like food! But it certainly helps.

One of my colleagues likes to refer to food science as the ultimately applied science. No other discipline uses all other disciplines in the same way as food science. For example, you can take any to the taxonomic definitions used over at Science Blogs a few weeks ago, add “food” in front and bingo you have a food scientist. A food microbiologist studies microbes that contaminant food etc.

A brief over view of the different branches of food science is: <!–[if supportFields]>tc "Application of scientific principles to the study of food " \l 2–><!–[if supportFields]>–>

Chemistry: Contents, Color, Changes during processing & storage, Flavor

Biology: Post harvest storage, Micro-organism growth, Spoilage, Food Poisoning

Engineering: Processing Technology, Mixing, Packaging

Nutrition: Labels, Health Claims

Disciplines such as psychology, physics, business, marketing, even music, can be part of our food chain. I’m sure Garrison Keillor could do a sketch on for the Professional Organization of English Majors™ about food.

Another thing I like to point out is that every product in a supermarket has been through a food technologist before it reached the shelf. Not literally, of course, but even fresh produce have to be evaluated for safety and who do you think designed those prepacked salads.

The kind of careers that a food scientist might follow include food development, quality control, sensory specialist, flavor chemist, food safety, government, research, and education.

What the US food industry has achieved is quite amazing and it is due to food science that these advances have been made. Whatever are the quibbles over what is a healthy food, the fact that the food industry is able, on the most part, to supply the whole of the US and elsewhere, with cheap, healthy, and safe food with a wide variety of choices is impressive.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make the food supply even better. Now the food industry has worked out how to make cheap long lasting food products, it should now try to fresh tasting long lasting food products. But expect to pay more for them. The cost of ingredients such as sugar, salt, and high fructose corn syrup, is much less than the cost of herbs and spices and other more flavorful ingredients. Also the science and technology required to process food so that is tastes freshly prepared despite having been kept in frozen storage for several months is complex and, therefore, more expensive.


20 thoughts on “What is Food Science?

  1. Pingback: Books: In Defense of Food Science « Lab Cat

  2. I noticed that it’s been nearly two months since you’ve written something on this blog..so i really hope & pray that your physical condition has not deteriorated after that hysterectomy..I’ll pray to God that you will recover from your ailment FULLY because you are such a good teacher. I learned so much from you already, even just within the last two hours that I’ve been reading your stuff..what do you know…you wrote everything that i myself would have written about me. Life is so wonderful–full of surprises at every turn! I want you to be up and about in no time at all, so much the better to keep writing about the things that really matter: about us having to be us; about the beauty of science and creation..I believe that life is the ultimate tapestry being woven by God which we all comprise–we are one thread of a different color each..get real well soon, okay?

  3. I was so much impressed when I read the writeup about Food Science and have learnt alot, more grease to elbow. My school mates mock me in school that I’m a cook, we argue on the matter but along the line we accept that we do cook but aren’t cooks because thats not our calling.
    So food scientist should know well what the course is all about and its essence to the whole wide world.

    • Terfa

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, lots of food scientists get teased about being cooks. So you are not alone.

      Good luck with your career.

  4. A brief research proposal topic for my M.Phil in food science and technology.

  5. Im very happy to read your article on food science. we the student of food science in africa are also perceive as cooks

  6. Am a food scientists and i want to learn more on food science and technology

  7. Wow. Thank u so much. In my skul, we r to chose b2n food science and food tech. Which wd u advice i take?

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  10. do you think food science and technology could also help in preventing some food related illnesses?

  11. I believe that food science will develop and that researchers in this field will find ways using food science to prevent food related illnesses, but it can also go the other way where it can cause new food related illnesses. Food science is a field where not much is known or researched and in the following years there will be many new findings.

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