food science careers: I wanna hear about'em.
June 9, 2019 7:26 AM   Subscribe

What it says on the tin. Do you or someone you know have a food-related career that isn't cooking/baking? I'd love to hear about it.

I want to bring some career/education options to the attention of a teenager who's good at a lot of things school-wise, but particularly interested (personally/recreationally I mean) in food. Thinking about it, planning it, eating it. There must be a million careers out there related to food, right? I just don't know about any of them, and googling brings up a lot of kind of disconnected and vague tidbits of information. I was hoping someone here might have first or secondhand knowledge of some career options, what they're like in practice, what kind of training got them there, etc. Thanks!
posted by fingersandtoes to Work & Money (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
One of my best friends married a food science grad student. Our social circles kind of merged, and as a result I have kind of a lot of friends with grad degrees in food science. My friend's wife is now a professor after several years of being a USDA inspector. Another person works in new product development for M&M Mars. Another worked in PR for Pepsi. Another one interned as an undergrad at NASA literally making astronaut food.

These are some of the ones I remember off the top of my head.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:38 AM on June 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

How to feed an army: Natick Labs. (A neat behind-the-scenes video.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:05 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

My neighbor works in Starbucks' food science department, developing new drinks.
posted by potrzebie at 8:17 AM on June 9, 2019

I worked in food marketing before I became disabled. I started out behind the cheese counter at Whole Foods, through which I learned a lot about food retailing, then got a degree in food marketing (Cornell and St. Joseph's have them too, but I was in Michigan), during which I worked in category management at a Big Midwestern Cereal Company. After I graduated, I first interviewed with some syndicated data providers. Because of where my spouse found an academic job, I found an opportunity doing retail data analysis and category management education at a California produce marketing order (here's more about marketing orders - they might remind you of research and promotion boards, some of which you might have seen advertising from).

If I'd been able to stay in the industry I'd thought about pursuing further education in food studies or a food marketing MBA or going deeper into data science.

I'd suggest your teenager subscribe to The New Food Economy's emails - they are always interesting and I'm sure they would prompt a lot of ideas about things they might pursue as a career. And I'd encourage them to read anything they can get their hands on about food - beyond what's online, there's food magazines, cookbooks (old and new), food history, food science, memoirs, things like the California Studies in Food and Culture series - food has such an enormous knowledge base and it all becomes useful if you have it mentally stored away.

You might also like to read this recent AskMe about agricultural careers.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:30 AM on June 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

One of my friends was educated as a laboratory technician, and started out doing lab work in a forestry department somewhere, but gradually moved towards food, and now develops condiments in a gourmet food company. And a lot more, but I'm not sure they'd like me posting their resume on the internet.
posted by mumimor at 8:41 AM on June 9, 2019

I used to edit cookbooks and we often hired recipe testers, food stylists, and nutritionists to contribute their expertise to our publications.

You might also peruse the list of federal jobs at the FDA or, as suggested above, the USDA.
posted by juliplease at 9:18 AM on June 9, 2019

I worked as the CFO for a restaurant group and a consumer packaged goods company. Some roles we had:

Marketing - general strategy and field marking
Analysts for all sorts of data
Supply chain
Product development
Business operations

There are a lot of options within food for a huge range of skills.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 9:20 AM on June 9, 2019

It’s been a while since I followed it, but besides being a job board, I remember Good Food Jobs having a good newsletter/blog and educational resources.
posted by teditrix at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I know a few professional nutritionists, associated chiefly with school districts, and some of whom are more information-science-oriented (i.e., managing aggregate data with regard to purchasing and stock rather than planning on the level of individual meals and portions). I also got to meet a dietician-in-training, who had an internship at NIH and was extensively involved in the research end of better understanding nutrition in a clinical setting (including things like say, drug interactions).
posted by jackbishop at 10:51 AM on June 9, 2019

A more general comment: food preparation, from the farm to the table, connects with so many different realms of human knowledge that there might well be a perfect fit with a secondary interest. Food presentation connects with aesthetics and the arts; nutrition connects with biology; food production connects with agricultural science and animal husbandry; food prep and recipe design involves chemistry; kitchen management depends on logistics; nutrition for at-risk populations and school children uses sociology and demographics; and pretty much every aspect of nutrition or consumption analyssis on a large scale requires statistics and data science.
posted by jackbishop at 10:58 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

If your teenager is interested in sustainability, check the team bios and job board at the Good Food Institute for ideas.
posted by FencingGal at 11:29 AM on June 9, 2019

I just spent some time chatting this weekend with a man who teaches Food & Nutrition at the upper high school level. He does technically teach them to cook, except what he's actually teaching includes: applied math and geometry, chemistry, physics, reading comprehension, budgeting and applied finance, home economics, culinary/hospitality management, nutrition, light equipment repair, and resource management.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:16 PM on June 9, 2019

Any well-run food company has a quality control function to guarantee the purity and quality of their product. They will probably have a test kitchen working on new products, new preparation methods, evaluating new suppliers. They will have PR people presenting their products to the marketplace.

There are restaurant consultants who advise on every detail of the restaurant trade include food and menu.

There are trade publications for just about everything. I used to read one about the beverage biz when I worked fo a soda company. They offer insight into an industry.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:43 PM on June 9, 2019

Food Justice!
posted by divabat at 8:30 PM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm someone pretty awesome obsessed about food and am training to be a dietitian! It ticks my boxes of being really science heavy (like pretty extensive biochemistry courses in my program), helping people eat better, and talking a lot about food while helping people eat better. I joke that a big part of my training feels like it's equipping me to become a therapist for food feelings.
posted by astapasta24 at 3:47 AM on June 10, 2019

(I am studying toward a degree in food science).

Food science is pretty interesting because it is much broader than people realise. I know people working toward their PhDs in Food Sci that are more pharmaceutical focused, like working on capsule packaging for drugs etc., because it's still something you consume and digest when you think about it.

New product development is the obvious one. I think it's something like 40% of food sci jobs are in NPD. You can be a food safety officer working for the local council, work in food testing labs doing safety testing or analysis for other companies, you can work in packing technology, be a sensory scientist, do straight up research for government organisations, you can go into beer/wine/cider production (I know someone doing their masters right now while living on an island filled with vineyards), be a dietician, you can diverge a bit and go into the engineering side of things. I know someone whose background is food sci but they now manage a large food processing plant. You could work in food product incubators where you help smaller companies develop their products. You can stay in academia and do research and teach. You could do science communication.

Food science involves all hard sciences but my feeling is along the way you (typically) develop an affinity for either chemistry, (micro)biology or physics. For me it is definitely microbiology so that is going to heavily inform my future choices. If I don't end up in research, I will probably go into cheese or wine.

There's a pretty big need for food scientists who understand agriculture and environmental science in small countries where they may not be science grads. Some organisations offer 1 year stints working in places like the Soloman Islands and Papau New Guinea to help them with food development plans etc. I know some of that volunteer stuff is not good but these programs seem less based on white saviour-ism.
posted by BeeJiddy at 4:11 AM on June 10, 2019

I have a friend who owns and manages an organic farm and the associated CSA. Her degree is in Ecology and Natural Resources from the Ag school of a land grant university.

I study primate ecology and took a number of food science classes in the Ag school of a different land grant university during my MA and PhD so that I could analyze the nutritional chemistry of foods eaten by the primates I study! I spend an absurd amount of my life thinking about food chemistry and food mechanical properties, in the context of what it means for primate ecology, sociality, and evolution.

People working alongside me in the lab were doing research on how to maximize specific nutrients in blueberries, developing NIR spectroscopy applications so that farmers in Ohio could use NIR to assess their soybean productivity and nutrition during harvesting (I think they were mounting them on combines), test preservation methods for wine and dairy, and translate food science research to farmers at Agriculture Extensions around the state.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:45 AM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

May I recommend ENGINEERING? I spent a few years as a consulting engineer working in food manufacturing facilities across the US and it was really interesting! I crossed paths with people with all sorts of job titles, from R&D to supply chain management to quality assurance to sanitation technology to project management. There are a ton of interesting food science jobs out there in the manufacturing world! I have a friend whose job it is to develop new recipes for cinnamon rolls, and another who works at a large-scale winery figuring out better ways to sanitize the pipes between batches, and another who runs projects aimed at preventing contamination at a peanut butter factory. I helped plan the layout of conveyor machines to move cucumbers through a pickle factory. I designed air conditioning systems for a giant bakery so the people working there would stop getting heat stroke. I helped specify the scales that measure out how many fruit snacks go into a snack size pouch. I laid out pneumatic conveying pipes that whooshed ingredients for cereal from one side of the building to the other. All kinds of fun stuff!

A lot of my co-workers had degrees in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, or food science. There are also programs out there that specialize in food engineering (like this one) which specifically attract people who are inclined toward engineering but want to focus on food.
posted by beandip at 4:05 PM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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