Food Science: What It Is and Why It Matters

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Food science is essentially science applied to food. Learn all about food science and why it matters.

[Featured Image]: Food Scientist working on food chemistry to help make it healthier.

When it comes to what we eat and how we eat it, one of the earliest forms of food science is fermentation. As far back as 7000-6600 BCE, there’s evidence of fermenting alcoholic beverages from rice, fruit, and honey in China, and wine in Georgia. Nearly every continent has experimented with fermentation, including Korean kimchi, Germany’s version of fermented cabbage (sauerkraut), yogurts, and cheeses. 

Despite centuries old techniques, the field and study of food science is relatively new. Sparked by social changes around the world, it’s also a growing field.The way that food is prepared continues to evolve, though some traditions have stayed the same. Companies now make it easier for people to feed themselves on the go, whether it’s a McDonald’s burger or a pre-packaged salad from Tesco. Even at home, microwavable dinners and ready-quick rice or pasta have become household mainstays. 

Food science dives into what people choose to eat and why, and how raw foods can be transformed into safe, nutritious, and delicious foods. Learn all about food science and why it matters.

What is food science?

Food science is a multidisciplinary field of study (and practice) that involves applying chemistry, nutrition, microbiology, chemical engineering, and physics to food, food groups, and the food system. 

Within the discipline, there is a strong emphasis on the chemistry of food, such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, and fiber, and how they are processed and stored in the body. Then, there’s the field that is concerned with the methods of preserving and processing food, like freezing, drying, farming, pasteurizing, dehydrating, and canning. Some fields in food science deal with food safety, while others focus on modern ways of processing and developing food, such as genetically engineered foods, flavor chemistry, packaging, and more.

What do humans eat and why do we eat it? Why and how do we transform raw meat (from livestock) and produce (from farm crops) into edible food? What is the importance of restaurants in modern society? These are the questions that food scientists seek to answer.

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The Science of Gastronomy

5 fields within food science

Within the discipline, there are fields that you could concentrate on if you were to become a food scientist or study food science.

Sensory science: Sensory science and analysis refers to how people evaluate flavors, appearance, and textures of food. In this field, scientists might develop new food products and flavors that are more nutritious or convenient, such as an all-organic frozen lasagna or a new cereal flavor. Others might conduct a focus group of consumers to conduct quantitative descriptive analysis, in which participants assign numerical scores to sensory attributes.

Nutrition: Some food scientists focus on identifying ways to maintain food’s nutritional content while also making it tasty. This might involve fortifying foods with vitamins or folic acid or helping to create a marketing scheme around tomato recipes, because studies have shown that heating tomatoes raises its lycopene content [1].

Read more: How to Become a Nutritionist: A Guide

Food chemistry: Understanding food chemistry is important to making foods healthier. By knowing the structure of raw ingredients, food chemists can help increase a product’s shelf life, ensure consistent texture, and deliver simpler ways to process food. You might study the enzymes of milk in order to develop ways to keep cow’s milk from spoiling. You could also increase the fiber content of a cracker.

The science of meat production

As meat continues to be demanded by most of the world’s diets, there is a growing need to peer behind the scenes of meat production. The course Sustainable Food Production Through Livestock Health Management from the University of Illinois provides learners with a strong scientific understanding of food production and its impact, as well as how it can be done more sustainably. Another course The Meat We Eat gives an overview of the US and European meat industries, meat inspection and food safety, and quality and packaging.

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Microbiology: This field studies how microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and mold interact with food. Food safety specialists might learn microbiology to understand how to eliminate bad bacteria and mold from foods, and then conduct testing to ensure consistency within its supply chain (from processing to transport to retail channels to customers). Fermented foods is another study within microbiology, of dairy products, soy, beverages, vegetables, and more.

Engineering and processing: Food engineers play an important role in transforming raw ingredients into safe, nutritious food. Process engineers then help to maintain flavor, color, and shelf life, like creating identical candy bars and deciding on what material the wrapper is made of. This involves packaging, like vacuum-sealed meats and even genetically modifying apples to grow thicker skins. 

 

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course

Sustainable Food Production Through Livestock Health Management

Learn about the impact of infectious disease on sustainable animal-based food production by understanding the science of growth, immunity, and infection and ...

4.8

(517 ratings)

26,723 already enrolled

BEGINNER level

Average time: 1 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Skills you'll build:

Disease Control, Animal, Nutrition, Animal Behavior

Careers in food science

Of the five fields above, there are plenty of job opportunities to work within food science. While some food scientists focus on new product development, others work to promote the quality or safety of certain types of food. 

Food chemist

Food chemists conduct research and assist product developers decide how a particular food should taste, smell, or look like. They might, for example, work with a baked beans company to ensure the beans’ texture isn’t too mushy and that they look appetizing out of the can. 

Food scientist

Another food scientist might find work at a Nestle factory in quality control of chocolate bars, ensuring each bar is the same size, shape, color, and taste. Some food scientists could end up in a marketing or sales department explaining the difference between sugar and Stevia. Others could be to work for the US Food and Drug Administration to determine the safety and saleability of processed food, produce, raw ingredients, and prescription drugs.

Researchers and product managers

Due to the wide variety of fields within food science, you can choose from careers as diverse as a food science researcher conducting focus groups, a flavor chemist at Nestle deciding on the sensory profiles of a new chocolate, or a product manager at a food and beverage technology start-up. Where you take your food science career depends on your specific goals and interests.

Becoming a food scientist

Become a food scientist by earning a bachelor’s degree in food science or a related field. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, most agricultural and food scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree, though many earn master’s degrees or PhDs [2].

Behind the science of gastronomy

Offered by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, The Science of Gastronomy is a delightful introduction to the basic scientific principles behind the methodology of cooking, food preparation, and the enjoyment of eating.

Through the lens of biology, chemistry, and physics, you’ll dive into altering flavor by chemical means, modifying a dish’s color to improve its appearance, and key ingredients for preparing good healthy food.

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course

The Science of Gastronomy

This course introduces several basic scientific principles underpinning the methodology of cooking, food preparation, and the enjoyment of food. All topics ...

4.6

(691 ratings)

87,296 already enrolled

BEGINNER level

Average time: 1 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Skills you'll build:

Nutrition, Chemistry, Food Science, Cooking

Article sources

1

Cornell University. “Italian chefs knew it all along: Cooking plump red tomatoes boosts disease-fighting, nutritional power, Cornell researchers say, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2002/04/cooking-tomatoes-boosts-disease-fighting-power.” Accessed December 9, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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