November 2007

The Art of Food Science: Capturing Attention Through Innovation and Design
By Mary Anne Clairmont, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 9 No. 11 P. 50

With an eye toward nutrition and environmental trends, food scientists have their finger on the pulse of Americans’ appetite for new and innovative products.

What do RDs and food scientists have in common? Analyzing both professions yields interesting similarities and differences. RDs study food and nutrition sciences, foodservice systems management, business, economics, computer science, culinary arts, sociology, communications, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy, and chemistry to prepare for their careers. They focus on the health of humans throughout the life cycle and apply their knowledge of nutrition and food to improve people’s health.

“Food scientists study the chemical composition of food and food ingredients; their physical, biological, and biochemical properties; the microbiology of foods; and the interaction of food constituents with each other and their environment,” according to Penn State University’s food science department. Further, “Food science integrates and applies knowledge within the disciplines of chemistry, engineering, biology, and nutrition to preserve, process, package, and distribute foods that are nutritious, wholesome, affordable, desirable, and safe to eat.” The food scientist focuses on the development, safety, quality, and wholesomeness of food.

Often, food science and food technology are used interchangeably, but the Institute of Food Technologists defines each distinctly: “Food science is 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. Food technology is the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe, nutritious, and wholesome food.”

The food scientist studies the properties of food, and the RD studies how food affects the human body. Both professions exist on a continuum and inevitably overlap; however, they have different focuses. While the food scientist aims to preserve and protect foods, the RD aspires to promote people’s health via foods and nutrients. The food scientist optimizes food quality, ensures its safety for humans, and is an indispensable player on the team of food professionals.

Despite their differing job responsibilities, RDs and food scientists have the same goal: to make it possible for people to have the food and knowledge needed to eat well.

The Key to Success in Food Technology
Food processing is a competitive business. Companies implement integrated resource management to maintain a competitive edge. Integrated resource management enables companies to coordinate timing, quantities, and food product design for new products. Through proper resource management, the company can turn out the right product on the first try. This is crucial to staying on top of the food manufacturing field.

Producing new, innovative merchandise that entices customers to buy while meeting consumer needs is one key to success in food manufacturing. It is in this area that the food scientist can make or break a company and determine its bottom line.

“Consumers want foods without all the ‘bad’ things that make them taste good, yet they expect healthier foods to taste just as good as the ‘bad’ ones,” says Bridgett McCune, a food technologist at Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream in Bakersfield, Calif.

The Art of Packaging
Whether you pick up a jar of salsa at the market, a can of pâté at a gourmet boutique, or a carton of milk at the minimart, you are handling containers that were designed and planned down to the smallest detail by food packaging experts.

Manufacturers generally use four types of material for packaging food: glass, metal, plant material (paper and wood), and plastic. When choosing packaging material for a product, food manufacturers consider the impression it may give the consumer. They know that packaging may determine whether the consumer purchases their product or their competitor’s product.

Each packaging material has positive and negative features. Metal is heavy. Glass is breakable. Paper absorbs fluids. Plastic is expensive. On the other hand, glass is desirable when displaying a product to the consumer. Light paper is perfect for packaging heavy products. Metal is sturdy and keeps food intact for a long time. Plastic containers can be opened and resealed to prevent spoilage.

The food scientist works with a team to determine the best product packaging. Apart from containing food, packaging must fit a product and improve it in some way. Understanding a product’s chemical qualities and the best environment for it is crucial to determining its packaging. Does the food require a certain environment to extend its shelf life? What do the product’s shipping needs dictate? How can it best perform once the consumer opens it? Also, how well does the packaging sell the product?

A bottle, for example, keeps light, germs, and oxygen out of food, and it is a product’s primary marketing tool. Nutrition information, as well as product information that appeals to the customer, is placed on the label. The food packaging industry considers customer convenience a major factor in new packaging materials and procedures. As the baby boomer generation ages, greater numbers of people than ever before are experiencing difficulty when opening food packaging. Some companies have responded by improving their packaging to accommodate seniors’ needs. For example, Sunsweet prune juice recently recognized that seniors account for a large portion of its consumer base. In response, the company made its 64-ounce terephthalate bottle easier to handle, lift, and pour by introducing a new design.

Food scientists have even gone beyond the basic four packaging materials as consumer demand for environmentally friendly products drives the industry. NatureWorks polyactic acid is derived entirely from corn and is renewable and compostable. The product is formed into a clear thermoform tray to hold pasta from Biorigin S.p.A., an Italian organic pasta maker. Pasta packaged in such a way is what the manufacturer touts as “a complete natural-in-natural solution.”

According to “Food Packaging: The Ultimate Wrap Up,” USDA scientist Tara McHugh and colleagues have invented edible food wraps made from fruits and vegetables. These thin, flexible films preserve foods and can be substituted for aluminum foil or plastic wrap, without environmental harm.The wraps might also be used to enhance the flavor of foods, such as a pork chop wrapped in a paper-thin apple film, which when heated would become a glaze.

Organic food packages solve one more problem food technologists face when developing packaging. Scalping, a chemical reaction at the molecular level, occurs when food interacts with packaging and the product loses its flavor, tastes funny, or both, according to an article in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Organic packaging that complements the taste of food eliminates scalping.

Product Development
Product development is an exciting area for food scientists because they work to achieve the impossible. McCune recently tackled one challenge at Dreyer’s. Cream and sugar give ice cream its unique characteristics, but texture, mouthfeel, and flavor depend on the proportions of these ingredients, as well as processing. If the manufacturer changes any of these variables, the product will not be the same. For example, if a manufacturer makes ice cream using artificial sweetener without compensating for the characteristics of sugar, the end product will not be the creamy dessert with which consumers are familiar. We have witnessed the evolution of low-fat ice cream, ice milk, low-sugar ice cream, and frozen yogurt over the past decades. These products went from foods to avoid to pretty tasty substitutes.

Although consumers demand products with less calories and fat, they sometimes end up with more sugar anyway. They still need guidance in choosing products that meet their unique health needs. Many RDs are familiar with the scenario of the client with diabetes who is using what he believes is a dietetic, diabetic, or calorie-free ice cream. The client’s out-of-control blood sugar level leads to a closer look at the food labels. The ice cream he is buying may be lower in fat but no lower in carbohydrates than the regular product. The client could be better off with regular ice cream because he would eat less carbs per portion and the increased fat would help release the sugar more slowly into his system, resulting in better blood sugar control.

A client may find a product with less sugar and total carbohydrates, but it may not have a good taste and texture. With new product development, however, the search for tasty low-sugar ice cream may end. McCune recently worked with another food scientist who developed a brand of Edy’s low-sugar ice cream with the taste and mouthfeel of the real thing. McCune says she accomplished this through a special process and reduced the addition of many of the ingredients used in low-sugar ice cream that simulated the properties of regular ice cream. This secret process is now patented by Dreyer’s.

Although the food manufacturing industry acts in response to customer demand for foods that promote better health, consumers often do not know what they really want. McCune cites examples of the recent trans fat debates that have caused some hysteria among consumers. She says that some companies solved the trans fat problem by producing products with saturated fats. From a health standpoint, is that truly a solution? In some cases, perhaps the focus should be to move toward products with minimal processing combined with healthy eating practices rather than searching for the “magic bullet.”

Nutrition Labeling
As a food scientist, McCune is responsible for accurate nutrition labeling of the company’s products. She must maintain current knowledge of labeling regulations and know how to interpret them. McCune uses food science technology to ensure that food labels accurately represent products.

From the molecular structure of foods to the product’s storage container and the information printed on the label, the food scientist controls, monitors, and develops foods literally from the inside out. They produce new products and ensure they are packaged and transported safely, attractively, and within the governmental regulations for security as well as sanitation. Food scientists work with marketing and customer satisfaction in mind as they apply scientific principles to improve and develop food products. They understand market trends, national security, and their companies’ bottom line. This is truly a diversified profession whose professionals must daily utilize critical thinking to keep Americans well-fed.

— Mary Anne Clairmont, RD, owns Take Two Nutrition in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. She is currently a graduate student pursuing a degree and licensure in mental health counseling.