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Bioscience Topics

Food Science

  • Photo: Jack Gavigan

Food science is a discipline concerned with all technical aspects of food, beginning with harvesting or slaughtering and ending with cooking and consumption. It 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 discipline of food science has developed over the years as methods to preserve foods and ensure public safety began to develop. Hundreds of years ago, the food system was much different than it is now. People in rural areas bought bulk staples such as flour, grains and sugar in large quantities for preparation at home and supplemented their staples with whatever fruits and vegetables they could grow or gather or whatever animals they could raise. People in the cities bought these products at farmers’ markets, a tradition that continues today in many places. Some foods, such as potatoes, would keep for months when stored in cool dark places called root cellars. Before modern-day refrigerators became available, people bought large blocks of ice cut from the surfaces of frozen lakes and rivers and kept perishable foods in their ice boxes.

Numerous methods for preserving foods have been developed throughout history, such as salting meat, drying fruits and vegetables in the sun or over low fires and converting milk into cheese. In the early 1800s, Frenchman Nicholas Appert developed a method for preserving food in glass jars. Aptly known as the father of canning, Appert also is considered by some as the father of food science. Modern food science, however, involves much more than food preservation. Food scientists help develop new products, design the manufacturing processes to produce these foods, choose the packaging materials, study the shelf life of products, conduct sensory evaluations and do microbiological and chemical testing. At universities, food scientists study more fundamental phenomena that are directly linked to the production of particular food product and its properties.

Food science is considered an applied science; like engineering, it uses knowledge from several natural scientific fields to solve practical problems. Food scientists are well-versed in the principles of microbiology, chemistry and physics. Because food safety is the primary concern of everyone, food scientists work to assure that products are not contaminated with microbes or harmful substances. The chemical nature of foods particularly is important in controlling the quality of flavor, color, appearance and texture. Food scientists also need to have a working knowledge of engineering principles so they can understand how a processing technology influences the food.

Subdisciplines of Food Science

Food Safety or Food Microbiology

The causes and prevention of foodborne illnesses.

Food Preservation

The causes and prevention of food degradation.

Food Engineering

The industrial processes used to manufacture food.

Product Development

The invention of new food products.

Sensory Analysis

The study of how food is perceived by the consumer’s senses.

Food Chemistry

The molecular composition of food and the involvement of those molecules in chemical reactions.

Food Biotechnology

The use of genetic engineering techniques to create foods with desirable traits, such as resistance to pests.

Nutraceutical Science

The study of foods that might have specific health or medical benefits.

Fermentation Science

The creation of beer, wine and other fermented foods.

Because people always need to eat, the food industry is relatively sheltered from the economic ups and downs that other businesses experience. In fact, the food processing industry is the largest manufacturing industry in the United States, employing more than 14 million people and accounting for 20 percent of the gross domestic product. The vast majority of food science majors find well-paying jobs soon after graduation.