How to Become a Food Scientist—Steps, Duties, Degrees, and Salary
It’s hard to imagine a world without the innovations of food scientists. They are responsible for how we get our food from the farm to the table, and what exactly ends up on our plates. From modern refrigeration and pasteurization to frozen, TV dinners and plant-based meat alternatives—food science is the driving force behind how and what we consume.
What is food science?
Food science is the application of scientific principles to develop and sustain a healthy food supply. It combines many disciplines including chemistry, microbiology, engineering, biochemistry, nutrition and dietetics, and more to understand how food works.
“Food science as an academic field is really looking at what happens with food from its point of harvest—whether that be catching a fish, slaughtering an animal or harvesting plants—until its arrival at a point of distribution,” said Dan Smith, senior instructor, and head undergraduate advisor for the food science and sustainable technologies program at Oregon State University (OSU).
“The goals of food science are to utilize the global food supply as efficiently as possible to provide food that is nutritious, sustainable, economically affordable, and safe.
What is a food scientist?
Food scientists research, test, develop and implement the principles of food science. “We are the experts on food from a commercialization standpoint… Anything that involves commercializing food in a safe, tasty, and affordable manner—that’s kind of our job,” said Adam Yee, food scientist and host of the My Food Job Rocks! podcast.
Why food science matters
Food science is not just for the sake of the individual consumer but is also essential to the well-being of our global population. There are numerous reasons why scientists study food, including:
A global population of nearly eight billion people and counting is a lot of mouths to feed. By studying new ways to create, manufacture and preserve food, food scientists seek to figure out how to feed the planet and maintain an abundant food supply for all.
It doesn’t matter if food is widely available if it’s not safe to consume. Food scientists study how microorganisms grow in food, how to disrupt those processes, how to make sure food processing facilities are sanitary, and much more.
Food science is ultimately responsible for the many agencies that ensure our food is safe to eat, such as the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Nutritionists and food scientists often work hand in hand to discover ways to deliver nutritious food to the populations that need it most, such as children (via pediatric nutrition), pregnant women, and the elderly. If our society has access to nutritious food, it can reduce the prevalence of some diseases.
If we want to sustainably feed our planet, scientists must figure out how to minimize waste and environmental impact at every stage of food production.
For example, scientists may try to determine the least amount of water needed to wash produce in a factory, while still making sure the food is sufficiently cleaned.
Another example is plant-based meat alternatives which could reduce the harmful impact of the beef industry on our environment.
Steps to becoming a food scientist
Decide if food science is the right field for you.
There are many different jobs in the field of food science. Resources like the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) can help you find out what kinds of jobs you might be interested in. If you are passionate about food and contributing to the maintenance of a safe and plentiful food supply, then a career in food science could be a great fit for you.
Earn a bachelor’s degree in food science.
A food science degree is often the entry-level credential needed to begin a career in food science. Many schools offer a food science major, which is a great jumping-off point for nearly any food science career path.
You should begin by looking for programs that have been approved by the IFT. Alternatively, some food scientists have a degree in other relevant disciplines such as microbiology or agricultural science.
Consider an advanced degree(s).
Some schools also offer food science at the master’s and doctoral levels. Depending on what kind of food science job you want, you may need an advanced degree to be qualified.
Apply to food scientist jobs.
With a degree in hand, you’re ready to start gaining experience. Private food and beverage companies, government agencies, and more could be a great place to start looking for entry-level positions.
Try out different positions and find your dream job.
Your career in food science is what you make it—trying out different roles is going to be the best way to find your perfect job. You may love working in product development, or food research, or you may want to start your own food business.
What does a food scientist do?
Let’s take a look at the job duties and career paths of a food scientist. Although the term ‘food scientist’ can encompass many different types of jobs, there are usually some common duties for food scientists that work in production and/or product development like Yee.
Throughout the jobs he’s held, Yee said his main objective is to solve problems about food. Depending on where you work, the food could be a specific product or many different products. In this role, you may have to:
The versatility of food science skills
Yee said that one of his first jobs out of college was working at a granola bar factory. He had to understand everything about the product, like how sticky and sugary the syrups must be, how crunchy the granola should be, the dimensions of the granola bars, and how long they can last before spoiling.
“We have to develop systems to control all that. We also have to troubleshoot when things go wrong and say, ‘Okay, from a food perspective, how do we fix that?’” Yee said.
It may seem like granola bars aren’t a big deal, but food scientists make a tremendous impact on real-world issues. For example, Yee currently works with alternative animal products.
“There was a time when food scientists were figuring out how to grind wheat, or refine sugar, or even make flavors. Now in the alternative animal realm, there are a lot of challenges. Solving those challenges is really rewarding because you’re not only solving something that is tough, but you’re also doing something that’s potentially really good for the world,” Yee said.
Where can a degree in food science take you?
There are many food science jobs beyond product development. “In the entry-level, what most food science students are starting at is a lower-level management role either in production, quality assurance or quality control… and then some students may be qualified to jump right into product development,” Smith said.
“Longer term we see students do a lot of different things. A fair number of our graduates end up starting their own businesses… At the other end, we see people going to work for the General Mills and the Nestlé’s of the world and make their way up the corporate structure.”
Depending on your employer, your role may even be a combination of several of these jobs, which Smith said is more common at smaller companies. The jobs below are just a sample of those available in food science.
Research chef (Food researcher)
Research chefs combine food science and technology with the culinary arts.
“They are essentially trying to combine the principles of food science… but also the artistry of chefs in terms of creating things with a unique combination of flavors and textures and so on. Making high quality, almost restaurant quality foods but things that might be distributed through broader channels like supermarkets,” Smith said.
Smith said that many people who go on to become research chefs either came from a culinary background prior to earning their food science degree, or they go to a culinary institute after earning their bachelor’s in food science.
Quality assurance and quality control
According to Smith, positions in quality assurance set up programs that ensure the quality and safety of food. Quality control is the management of the day-to-day application of those programs. These are common entry-level positions available to food science graduates.
Marketing and sales
If you combine the knowledge of food science with marketing and communication skills, you may be primed for a successful marketing or sales position within the food industry. People in these positions may work alongside product developers or work in print and digital media.
Food science degree & education
Although there’s no fixed education path required to be a food scientist, many schools offer a bachelor’s degree in food science. This may be the only degree you need to qualify for entry-level food science positions and begin your career.
“In food science, the large majority of bachelor’s graduates do not earn another formal degree… but they do continue training throughout their career, specific to their work circumstance,” Smith said.
Some people in the food science industry have additional degrees or minors in other areas. Having one of these degrees could pave the way for specialization within the industry:
At OSU, Smith said that 85% of their food science graduates are working in a professional capacity related to their degree within three months of graduating.
What will I learn in a food science program?
The Institute of Food Technologies (IFT) assesses undergraduate food science programs and approves those that meet specific criteria. The IFT is not an accrediting body, but its seal of approval demonstrates that a school’s food science program fulfills its educational standards and requirements.
In any IFT-approved food science program, students must complete a certain number of credits in each of these subjects as outlined in their guidelines for initial IFT approval (source, PDF):
Through these classes, students must learn the following:
“Our curriculum includes classes outside of the sciences that get into both the environmental but also the economic and the social dimensions of sustainability, so questions of equity, affordability, and access,” Smith said.
Food scientist salary and job outlook (state-by-state)
How much does a food scientist make? Factors such as location, education, and experience can all affect a food scientist’s salary. Your exact position and scope of work as a food scientist can also affect your salary.
Median Salary: $78,340
Projected job growth: 5.7%
10th Percentile: $45,010
25th Percentile: $60,130
75th Percentile: $101,180
90th Percentile: $130,540
Projected job growth: 5.7%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Projected demand for food science jobs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of food scientists is projected to grow 5.7% through 2031, slightly faster than the average across all occupations. That being said, new challenges to the food industry may increase the demand for food scientists in the near future.
Issues such as climate change, population growth, and demand for resources all impact the agricultural and food industries. In order to maintain a sustainable food supply, our global society will need food scientists to address these challenges.
“It is a stable job. People have to eat, and it’s a job that’s not well-known,” Yee said.
“When we were in the depths of the Great Recession, food science was one of the most resilient industries… I see food science as a career, not unlike nursing where you can go almost anywhere and work in food science,” Smith said.
Is a career in food science right for me?
Now that you understand the possibilities of a career in food science, you may be wondering who this profession is really cut out for.
Smith said that he generally sees three main attributes in successful food science students:
1. Innate scientific curiosity
As a food scientist, you will inevitably learn and conduct a lot of hard science. Smith says that people who are considering this career should have a deeper curiosity about the underlying scientific processes of food.
2. Passion for food
You’ll seldom find a food scientist who doesn’t like food. If you’re going to be working with it day in and day out, you should be passionate about food and its relationship to our health, our cultures, and our survival.
“I’ve been continually noting how many of the students that come into this major have something in the arts as an important part of their life,” Smith said. “I think there’s that really creative spirit that also moves a lot of people into working with foods.”
With professional insight from:
Dan Smith, MS
Senior Instructor II and Head Undergraduate Advisor, Dept. of Food Science & Technology—Oregon State University