Food Bites: The Scientific Process of What We Eat
by Kristin Grant | published May. 8th, 2017
What makes Oreos so addictive? Why is it impossible to eat just one Lay's potato chip? Behind the tastes, textures and smells of every manufactured product on grocery shelves, there is a very intentional thought process. These flavor decisions are usually made by food scientists — people who have been trained to develop food on a mass scale.
For over 40 years, food scientist and hospitality professor Dr. Carol Whitlock has been teaching RIT students to think critically about food.
"I prepare students to do food experiments."
“I prepare students to do food experiments. Along the way, I teach them sensory evaluation — how to measure qualities of food objectively, not based on personal opinion,” she explained.
The research procedure Whitlock has her students follow is identical to any other scientific study. In her classroom, however, the subject matter revolves around food.
“They have to start a literature search, just like a scientific approach to any problem. They make a plan, they have to state their objective ... then they make their products, they’re evaluated, they have a scorecard they create that is appropriate and they do it twice to make sure that it isn’t a fluke,” Whitlock explained. “They get 20 evaluations, and then they do statistics on those results, and then write their scientific paper.”
Projects that focus on dietary restrictions are popular among her Nutrition major students. Her Hospitality and Tourism majors, on the other hand, are more likely to address problems that have to deal with food cost, quality and transportation.
Almost right off the bat, Whitlock ensures that her students interact with several food corporations. Just this past month, her class wrapped up a three-week long project geared at creating a product for Dove Chocolate.
“We’ve been blessed for 10 years to have this partnership with a higher-profile company,” said Whitlock. “For my students, it’s like a co-op in a class — they’re working directly for a company.”
Life of a Food Scientist
Andy Narotsky, a Rochester native who now works at Campbell’s headquarters in Camden, N.J., had some additional insights to provide on the food science industry.
“Generally speaking, my job is to develop food products,” he said. “That can entail a lot of things. On a given day, I may be making a new batch of something that we’ve decided to try, or I might be ideating a product.”
According to Narotsky, the brainstorming process always begins with the customer. “Marketing or some other side of the corporate ladder can come to us and say, ‘We have researched that consumers want x, y and z,’” he explained. “Then, chefs will make different ‘gold standards’ — their best iteration of whatever we’re trying to make. Then, the technologist — that’s my position — will work with culinary to better understand how to translate what the chef does to something we can produce at scale.”
Part of Narotsky’s job also includes revamping old company mainstays. “If we have a product that is doing poorly in the marketplace, we can get data from consumers,” he said. “The first step of tackling an issue is understanding what consumers don’t like about the product.”
After the problem with the merchandise is identified, Narotsky and his team go through a complex, multi-step process to improve it. “We first ask Culinary how they would solve the problem in a restaurant setting,” he said. “Then we talk to the process engineers to find out what the capabilities of the plants are, and then also talking to marketing and business people about ... how much money we have to spend on ingredients.”
Given today’s competitive food market, it is absolutely essential that companies continue to find ways to reinvent their products.
“Sometimes, it’s challenging for a company like Campbell, with a rich, long history of making quality products, to change quickly to the changes in the field,” Narotsky said. “I think we’re doing a good job, but it’s definitely a challenge to follow the trends.”
"There's an estimated 12,000 new food products a year."
Whitlock made similar observations based on her own experiences with the food industry.
“There’s an estimated 12,000 new food products a year — and only about 10 percent make it, and then they have to make it to the grocery store shelves, where space is limited. It’s really a more complex process than people realize,” she said.
For that very reason, Whitlock makes sure her students understand the importance of novelty when it comes to food. “If you don’t have something innovative, then you’re probably going to lose market shares. Because today, that’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for foods they perceive to be better,” she explained.
When listening to these observations, it can be difficult not to picture large food companies as somewhat conniving entities. Whitlock would argue that the businesses are just catering to what the customers have asked for.
“Some people think that food companies develop food for themselves and their economic reasons. But often they are really producing foods that the public has expressed that they want in some way,” she said. “The food companies follow up because consumers are looking for that.”
"It's translating something that you would do in your kitchen for us to do cost effectively and cheaply, to let you have a can of soup year-round, for $1 on the shelf."
At the end of the day, Narotsky finds his objective quite simple.
“A lot of people hear science and they immediately go to [the] laboratory, with people in lab coats trying to figure out how to genetically modify food and put out the most inauthentic thing possible,” he said. “That’s really not what we do. It’s translating something that you would do in your kitchen for us to do cost effectively and cheaply, to let you have a can of soup year-round, for $1 on the shelf.”