Food scientists play a vital role within the food and drink industry, and in keeping the nation healthy.
As you will read, food scientists can be involved in all sorts of research and innovations; they have a choice of roles and types of employer. In this article we’ll look at the sort of work you could do, the skills you need and how you can get into this career area.
Elizabeth Head is an independent food consultant. She was kind enough to tell us a little about her career and provides some useful advice to kickstart your own.
What would I do as a food scientist?
Food science is the study of the microbiological, chemical and physical properties of food and drink. Food scientists help to research new products or improve those already on the market. They may be involved in all stages of development – from the study of ingredients to testing the final product, or they may specialise in a particular development stage or area of research, such as food safety.
You will come across jobs for food scientists and food technologists. Generally speaking, food technologists apply the results of food science to the development of commercial food products and may be concerned with production, preservation, packaging and quality standards, for example. However, the distinction between these roles is often blurred, and food technologists often have a background in food science and vice versa.
TIP: A few universities run activities to help young people explore careers in food science and technology. Look out for these. One example is the annual summer school held at the University of Leeds.
Depending on your role, as a food scientist/technologist you might:
- Work on new recipes
- Modify existing products to make them healthier and/or more sustainable, e.g. by reducing the salt, fat and sugar content, or by coming up with alternatives to animal-based products
- Examine how the properties of products change during various production stages
- Evaluate the appearance, texture and flavour of new or modified products
- Analyse the nutritional value of products and check they are listed accurately on food labels
- Investigate how well food products keep and work on new preservation methods
- Test food samples for any harmful bacteria, moulds, pesticide levels etc
- Check that food manufacturing processes conform to the required standards
- Research the most efficient manufacturing and packaging methods so that waste is minimised
- Liaise with other professionals, such as laboratory staff, engineers, production managers, buyers, nutritionists, and sales and marketing staff
If you are based in a laboratory, you would use a range of equipment, such as automated testing machines and powerful electron microscopes.
We asked Elizabeth about her career….
“I work with a range of well-known clients in the food industry and specialise in developing innovative products. After receiving a brief, I’m involved in all stages from ‘concept to shelf’. My role may include working on recipes, calculating costs based on target pricing, sourcing ingredients and (if necessary) manufacturing facilities, conducting factory trials, assessing the nutritional content (based on lab results), testing product shelf-life and advising on labelling. Something like a new granola is relatively simple to produce, even on a large scale, whereas certain cereal bars have layers and toppings, which require special thought regarding the ingredients and equipment used in their manufacture.”
Where could I work as a food scientist?
Most food scientists are employed by food and drink manufacturers, but there are also opportunities at research institutes, with consultancy firms and in food retailing. You could work for the local government in areas such as food inspection, trading standards and environmental health. Central government bodies, such as the Food Standards Agency and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, are also possible employers.
You could be based at a research facility, laboratory, test kitchen, factory or office. Some food scientists travel to clients’ premises.
Would I suit a career in food science?
Food science might be a career for you if you enjoy science and like analysing and solving problems. It’s important to be able to collaborate with others and work in a team. You need a methodical and organised approach to your work, and to be able to pay attention to detail. Plenty of patience is required as it may take a while to get results or finish a project.
TIP: Relevant experience, e.g. through a holiday job, internship or sandwich degree, is valuable. As Elizabeth says, “Doing work experience will not only open up your eyes to the range of opportunities available, it will also help you decide whether you would be suited to a career in food science.”
How do I get into food science?
Most food scientists are graduates. There are specialist degree programmes in food science, food science and nutrition, and food science and technology. Some courses are accredited by the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST). Alternatively, you could take a broader-based degree (e.g. in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, biotechnology or microbiology) and perhaps choose relevant modules or specialise at postgraduate level (see below).
Degree course entry requirements vary. Your A-levels/Highers usually need to include at least one science subject. Alternative qualifications, such as a relevant BTEC Level 3 National or T level, may be acceptable. Check entry requirements with individual institutions and through UCAS.
If you don’t have the necessary entry requirements, some degree courses are offered with a foundation year to give you the required grounding in science. Alternatively, you could take a relevant foundation degree or Higher National qualification and, with further study, top this up to an honour’s degree.
Taking a postgraduate qualification can give you the opportunity to study a particular area of food science in more depth and may be useful or necessary for certain roles. Some undergraduate courses lead to an integrated master’s qualification.
TIP: Elizabeth explains that, particularly, if you want to work on product development, it’s useful to learn as much as you can about food. “Apart from focusing on your scientific studies, develop some culinary skills. You can learn a lot by working alongside chefs or by doing a cookery course, for example.”
Once you enter employment you will be trained for your particular role. Apart from learning on the job, you may attend short courses and other training events. Some large food companies run formal graduate training schemes and employers may support you to continue with your studies at postgraduate level.
Rather than studying at university full time, in England there is a degree apprenticeship for food industry technical professionals. This involves training with an employer and studying part-time for a BSc in food science and technology.
Although most food scientists are graduates, it’s possible to work as a technician or assistant without a degree. Entry requirements vary – as a minimum you would need GCSEs/Nationals in science subjects. Some employers prefer those with A-levels/Highers or equivalent; the OCR Level 3 Cambridge Technical in applied science (food science pathway) or, in England, the T level in science (occupational specialism in food science), would be particularly relevant.
Once working in a support-level role, you can usually gain relevant qualifications and this can lead to more responsible work. Some employers offer training through laboratory technician apprenticeships. In England, there is a level 3 apprenticeship specifically for food technologists and in Scotland, a food and drink technical SCQF level 6 modern apprenticeship.
We asked Elizabeth about her career route.
“I was interested in food but, apart from working as a chef, I wasn’t aware of other opportunities. At the age of 16 I was lucky enough to get some holiday work at Geest (now Bakkavor) where a neighbour was employed. Once she realised that I liked the idea of food science she gave me advice about how to get started. I took A-levels in biology, chemistry and home economics and then a BSc in food science at the University of Reading. I went back to Geest during university vacations and worked there after I graduated. After gaining experience in a number of other food companies including Jordans and Ryvita, I decided to set myself up as a freelance consultant”.
What opportunities are there to progress in food science?
There is a demand for skilled food scientists, so career prospects are good. You can develop particular areas of interest or gain promotion to a more responsible role, such as project lead or departmental manager. Gaining professional status as a Registered or Chartered Scientist will demonstrate that you are competent in your field, and there are specialist registers in areas such as food safety and sensory science.
Some experienced food scientists, like Elizabeth, move into consultancy and can work for themselves. Other options include moving into lecturing, marketing, technical sales or buying. Food scientists can also work in science communications, journalism or publishing.
TIP: Becoming a member of a professional body, such the IFST, will help you keep up to date, give you access to professional development opportunities and allow you to network with others in the sector. Elizabeth says, “Another good way to develop contacts is to attend food exhibitions, such as the International Food & Drink Event or the Food & Drink Expo.”
How can I find out more about careers in food science?
You can find out how well your strengths, interests and personality match the role of a food scientist by taking our psychometric assessments and buying a Morrisby pass.
You can find information through profiles on careers sites such as Prospects, the National Careers Service, Careers Wales, My World of Work and targetjobs. The IFST website also has details on education and careers, including its new initiative, Love Food, Love Science.
Apart from food science, there are all sorts of related careers you could consider – the Tasty Careers website (from the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink) will give you ideas.
We asked Elizabeth what she enjoys most about her job. ..
“Trying to come up with tasty, healthy and sustainable products at the right price and with a decent shelf-life is a challenge, but seeing the products I’ve worked on for sale in the supermarkets gives me a sense of achievement. I try to work with ethical companies and love helping consumers eat more healthily. There are shortages of people with the right skills, so this year I’m giving some talks at local schools about the range of career opportunities available.”
Debbie Steel, February 2024
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information, and a member of the Career Development Institute and the Careers Writers Association.