A food scientist can play many roles in foodservice, including menu R&D. Here's a closer look at some of the areas of a food scientist's expertise.
1. Food Microbiology
Basically the study of how microorganisms interact with foods, food microbiology focuses on bacteria, molds, yeasts and viruses. Areas of particular importance to product development are food safety and quality. Food safety deals with preventing pathogens in foods. It’s nearly impossible to eliminate microorganisms from any food, but many steps can be taken to slow their growth or inactivate them. What food science is doing in the way of food safety is developing very sensitive and rapid techniques to identify pathogenic microorganisms and the toxins they produce in foods, and developing packaging and processes that inhibit their growth and reduce their rate of survival. Not all microorganisms are harmful, but some cause food spoilage.
The key to controlling spoilage is killing as many bacteria as we can without also killing the quality of the food in which they reside. Food microbiology is one of the most important fields of food science when it comes to product development, especially in this age of litigation. When devising a development plan for a new product, it is essential to consider the microbial quality of each component and how that may affect the overall quality of the product—and to determine how to process the product so that it has a sufficient shelf life.
2. Food Engineering & Processing
As far as product developers go, food engineers develop the concepts that processors use to turn raw ingredients into safe, long-lasting foods. In menu development, engineers may not play a direct role, but processors will. How an ingredient is processed can have a dramatic effect on the flavor, color, safety and shelf life of food. Consider high-pressure processing (HPP) and its effect on the fresh fruit and vegetable juice industry. HPP is a non-thermal or “cold pasteurization” process developed to allow fruit and vegetable juices to be produced without any of the deleterious effects of thermal treatments, such as changes in flavor, texture or color. The nutritional profile of the juices is unaltered by the process, so fortification is not necessary.
An all-natural, healthy and flavorful product can be produced thanks to food processing engineers. HPP can also be used to process raw clams, destroying potentially harmful bacteria. Think of the potential in a seafood restaurant chain. Clams, even oysters could be kept alive until the customer orders them; place the clams/oysters in the HPP and in a minute they’re shucked and cleared of potentially harmful microorganisms.
3. Food Chemistry & Biochemistry
All foods are biochemicals because in most cases foods or their raw ingredients are or were living entities. Understanding biochemistry can be of vital importance to a product developer. Take the activity of enzymes. Adding the enzyme lactase to milk cuts the disaccharide lactose into its individual components galactose and glucose, making it more digestible. This opens up a whole spectrum of products for the lactose-intolerant. But the enzyme has an optimal activity at a specific pH and temperature—it won’t survive certain types of processing. A grounding in biochemistry provides the knowledge to develop a product that takes advantage of such compounds.
A major challenge for product and menu developers is providing flavorful foods that contain fewer calories but still satiate the customer. Food scientists have put a major focus on identifying and characterizing the biological effects of so-called nutraceuticals and functional foods. Product developers are drawing on this research and working to incorporate these foods or their specific bioactive compounds into new products. Consumers, too, are becoming educated in this area, and will eventually expect the same health benefits from their away-from-home foods that they get from home.
Fortification is another topic that product developers must consider. “Vitamin blends” commonly added to retail products are expensive and highly unstable. The point at which they are added during the manufacturing process will have an effect on their final active concentration. The effects of processing, storage and preparation on the nutritional quality of foods is also key. Food technologists may develop an HPP process that preserves the natural vitamin A content in, say, an avocado puree. But if the resulting product is incorporated into a menu item that sits in a steam table for extended periods, it’s likely that the benefit of the novel process would be lost.
Nutritionists typically associate thermal processing with detrimental effects on foods’ nutritional quality, but not always. Recent work at Cornell University showed that heating tomatoes raises the level of a cancer-fighting phytochemical called lycopene.
5. Sensory Analysis
Sensory science uses people to describe and evaluate flavors, textures, appearance and other attributes of foods. Sensory evaluation practices are integral to product developers. Sensory techniques can be used to narrow down concepts and choose protocepts, optimize a developing product and monitor and control quality of the finished product. Consumer tests can be used to evaluate preference and acceptance of a product. Products can be evaluated and optimized using quantitative descriptive analysis (QDA), in which a focus group defines the sensory attributes for a product and establishes numerical scores for these attributes. Establishing the appropriate measurement is of major importance, as it allows sensory results to be quantified. This is the essence of sensory science: converting human perception of a food into quantifiable results.