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Food companies depend on food scientists. Working in many roles, we innovate and make new products, ensure food is safe and meets legal standards, strive to reduce costs and improve efficiency, and control the manufacturing processes to maintain quality. All of these roles are technically challenging and essential to the success of our employers. Indeed, companies in all industries depend to some extent on technical innovation to compete with one another. In some sectors, like information technology, science and innovation lie at the heart of the brand while in other sectors, notably food, science is not addressed externally but depended on internally.
This isn’t a false modesty on the part of the food companies but rather a reasonable commercial self-interest. Brand managers have learned from listening to their consumers that while people expect their food to be affordable, safe, nutritious, and tasty—qualities most reliably achieved in an industrial setting—many have concerns about unfamiliar technologies and ingredients being used in their foods and are reassured by the familiarity of “kitchen-like” food preparation methods. As a consequence, few food companies would seek to associate the words “factory,” “industrial,” or “science” with their food.
This is a terrible pity because food science is cool and clever and needed.
There is hope. Through advocacy and our numerous resources within IFT, we can begin to encourage an open and public dialogue about the science of food. We can look to and learn from those startups who are proud to use the most advanced technology to make food better, such as the makers of new plant-based foods who boast about the advanced technologies that distinguish their products and consciously place themselves in the innovate-or-die culture of Silicon Valley while other companies evangelize about the important role insects should play in our diet or the power of urban agriculture to transform our cities.
These new companies are bold because their innovation is the way they plan to disrupt established categories and make space for their brands. Importantly, their premium lies in the belief that they can address the concerns a segment of consumers share with existing options. If you are worried about the environmental or ethical issues around eating meat, then you will be willing to pay extra for a similar product made from plants or insects.
One of the most important concepts these companies understand is that people are far more willing to value technology if they can see benefits to themselves, a wider community, or the environment, rather than merely associating it with increased profits for a company. In some cases, the technology will be genuinely innovative, but the biggest impact of food science is often the effective application of existing methods.
I remember talking to a new professional about his work developing quality control protocols at a bakery. It would be dull or even a turn-off for many people to learn about the metal screens, hair nets, and laboratory testing involved in making cakes, but on the other hand, if he started a conversation with “I work to reduce food waste by…” then the science and technology has value. Similarly, whether you are working on procedures for managing recalls and traceability, setting up sanitation systems, or reformulating foods with alternative ingredients, introducing your project’s benefits and the problems it will solve before providing the details of the technology will emphasize its value.
People are still going to have concerns about the way food is grown, manufactured, advertised, and sold. There are real, complex problems around food and farming that are not solely under the control of food scientists or even food companies.
As food scientists and technologists, we shouldn’t be expected to defend everything about the way food is made today but rather to focus on the capacity of science and technology to make it better. If we work together as a community to find better ways to talk about our work and advocate for our profession, we can play a more effective part in these conversations and improve the way food science is valued in society.
John Coupland, PhD, CFS
IFT President, 2016–2017
Professor of Food Science, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.