Hungry for a job? Try food science
Special to The Seattle Times
These are just a few of the questions food scientists seek answers to in this food-conscious age. (You'll find the answers in the box below.)
The simplest definition of food science is "the study of foods," says Louise Berner, head of the food-science department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. "Think of everything it takes to take grains of wheat and come up with a product like Wheaties. I like to say our job is taking food from the farm to the fork."
Food-science occupations vary greatly, including: researching new food products and adapting them for commercial use; developing recipes for food companies or restaurants; quality assurance; food writing for reference books, cookbooks and periodicals.
Jessica Gurry, 29, is one who found her dream job in the field.
"I love what I do. I am the only person I know who wakes up happy to go to work each day," says Gurry, who moved to Seattle from Louisiana recently to work as a food scientist for Starbucks.
"I work on the beverage side of things," she says. "Things like syrup development, flavor development, what ingredients to use as stabilizers. Essentially, what can go into a latte and not curdle."
Gurry's initial job out of college was at a Dreyer's Ice Cream manufacturing plant in Houston, where she worked on equipment design and quality assurance: subjecting the ice cream to various conditions to determine predictability of texture and flavor.
"It wasn't as glamorous as you dreamed your first job would be," Gurry says. "The thought that a fantasy job existed gave me something to reach for."
So Gurry called the director of research and development at Starbucks. A month later, she was hired.
Gurry works out of the company test kitchen at Starbucks' corporate headquarters in Sodo, where she helps develop new beverages.
"I'm proud of how the eggnog latte turned out."
Diet focus creates jobs
Heightened public focus on diet and health is stimulating more food research, resulting in more job opportunities, particularly for those with a master's degree.
And the industry is relatively recession proof: Demand for food fluctuates little, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The problem is, Swanson says, that most people aren't aware of the field or the job opportunities.
"Like me," Gurry says, "most food scientists stumble into the field. I didn't know the field existed when I first attended college to study chemistry.
"I figured I'd graduate and go to work for Exxon or in a plastics factory. Those are two huge employers in the South."
But she had misgivings: "My mother works for a corporation that handles specialty chemicals. She works alone in a lab with her beakers and sometimes doesn't even know what the chemicals she helps develop are used for.
"I decided I didn't want to work like that. I began to look more closely at other opportunities available to a chemist. When I first read about food science, it really grabbed my attention."
She switched majors and graduated with a bachelor's degree in food science. "I'd rather work with food any day than with chemicals."
In search of 'forgiving' cakes
Food scientist Bonnie Gorder-Hinchey has spent a lot of time testing for the right melt, taste, appearance and stre-e-e-tch of pizza cheese.
"We experiment until we have the right blend of milk fat and cultures to get that seven-inch stretch to pizza cheese that television commercials love."
Gorder-Hinchey is director of culinary services at Publicis Dialog, a company on Lower Queen Anne that specializes in recipe development and researching consumer food preferences.
Publicis' facility includes a consumer kitchen for recipe development and judging recipe contests, and sensory-evaluation booths where food samples are given to focus groups that rate the food's appearance, taste and texture.
Gorder-Hinchey has a bachelor of science in food science from Iowa State University and a master of business administration from Seattle University.
Before joining Publicis, she spent 20 years developing bakery products and recipes for Continental Mills and Ghirardelli Chocolate.
"One of my favorite parts of the job is overseeing recipe contests," she says. "We've evaluated over 10,000 recipes entries for contests sponsored by Nestlé Toll House and Ortega. ... we make sure the recipes work and give our recommendations for the best.
"We also research and develop additives that the General Mills of the world would use in, say, cake mixes."
"We make cake mixes very forgiving," she notes. "We do 30 different tests on a cake mix. We vary water amounts added to the mix, how long hand mixing is carried out, even variations in oven temperatures. What we do is develop a very tolerant mix so that even if the consumer doesn't follow the directions closely, a cake will still turn out."
Away from her test kitchen, Gorder-Hinchey still loves to work with food, a sign of the passion it takes to be a good food scientist.
"Even at home, I love to make cookies," she says. "Essentially, I'm a big dough eater.
"Truthfully, I've gained a lot of weight doing this work. But would you really trust a thin chef?"
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company