We are all quite lucky: we live in a time when we can go to Woolworths or Coles and buy anything from a packet of crisps to a tin of beans.

Each of the products found on supermarket shelves has been carefully treated to ensure the maximum degree of food safety and the optimal balance of nutrients, all neatly wrapped up with a label bearing an expiration date so that we don’t inadvertently eat something that has gone off.

Buying food products hasn’t always been that simple.

Until Pasteur’s era, food chemistry wasn’t considered a legitimate field of study or work. The universal practice of pasteurisation marked the start of food science and technology.

We are all familiar with the process of pasteurisation – heating a substance at a relatively low temperature to kill off enzymes that cause foodstuffs, especially milk, to spoil.

In the late 19th Century, French scientist Louis Pasteur gave his name to the process that was actually established nearly a millennium before but his were not the only advances in food preservation.

Salting, smoking and curing meat, making hardtack out of water and flour that could later be reworked into some sort of bread or gravy… drying and fermenting foods are also preservation techniques that humans have used for centuries.

In fact, long before universities where one could study food science were built, and even way before food science was considered a valid field of study, people have been adept at protecting their food stores from rot and spoilage.

Considering things from that perspective, you might wonder: what do we need food technologists for?

That’s the question your Superprof answers today.

Smart farming and smart agriculture are recent developments in food technology
As a food technologist, you might be interested in smart farming or smart agriculture. Source: Unsplash
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Scratching the Surface of Food Technology

Take a moment to review your food supply: how is the food you have in your kitchen right now packaged?

You may find bottles of drink, cartons of milk and juice, tins of vegetables, bags of snacks and bread and boxes of biscuits…

Without looking at any label, can you name some common ingredients you might find in these foods?

Of course, there would be flour – is it bleached and enriched? Naturally, there will be salt, especially in tinned and frozen foods; salt is a natural preservative.

If you look at the ingredients list of a frozen dinner, you may be shocked to discover how much salt (sodium) it contains!

If you are in the habit of reading food labels before selecting those you will buy – a practice that a dietician would strongly recommend, you should thank a food technologist for the information on what your food consists of.

Common entries on food labels include:

  • food colouring makes the food look more appealing
  • BHA – butylated hydroxyanisole, a preservative
  • BHT - butylated hydroxytoluene, a preservative
  • maltose: a sugar added for flavour
  • dextrose: a sugar added for flavour
  • niacin: a B-complex vitamin essential to human health
  • thiamine: Vitamin B1
  • riboflavin: Vitamin B2
  • vitamins

Often, these supplements are added either to enrich the food, preserve it or enhance its flavour and appearance.

Also, because preserved foods tend to lose some of their nutritional value during processing, vitamins and minerals are often added back in, hence those entries on the labels.

Food science is constantly in search of new ingredients and ways of making food more appealing, healthier and safer, and food technologists play a leading role both in food security and in food product development.

With the global population growing ever larger, the pressing issue within the food industry is on finding more ways to maximise the food available so that it will feed more people.

Granted, the largest part of these scientific studies are conducted in a laboratory. Maybe the nutrition and microbiology aspects of food science technology are not what you are angling for.

You may want to know what subjects are covered in a food technology curriculum

Not everything about a food technologist is about food research
Not all of a food technologist's duties are about nutrition and food; you may also visit farms to ensure cleanliness and food safety. Source: Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

What a Food Technologist Does

If s/he isn’t working directly with food in a lab, a food technologist enjoys a host of other duties such as verifying that government standards for food safety are met and making recommendations for better, safer processes.

You may choose to work in a food processing plant doing just that, or you may find yourself drawn to the quality control department, making sure strict hygiene standards are upheld to prevent contamination of the food.

With environmental concerns now at an all-time high, devising more efficient ways to package foods is currently the hot topic.

Food technologists are desperately searching for new materials and ways to package foods so that they retain or exceed their current levels of safety while reducing the impact on the environment.

Bulk food dispensers are one way that retails stores are cutting down on packaging.

Foods, at this point mainly dry goods such as breakfast cereals, grains and beans are shipped to the markets from the processing plants in large containers. Retail employees then fill the dispensers as needed.

Going hand in hand with that effort is the ongoing search for more efficient, less impactful transportation options at both ends of the processing plant – when the raw goods come in to be worked and when they ship out, ready for supermarket shelves... or the stores’ bulk dispensers.

If this field is of particular interest to you, your future career plans would benefit from engineering studies.

Adding an engineering elective to your food science and nutrition degree plan will permit you to design a piece of equipment or a process that would make food processing and transportation more efficient and safer.

Are you warming up to the idea of being a food technologist? Find out how you can become one

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The Difference Between Food Science and Food Technology

You might wonder at the difference between these two branches of study both related to food engineering so we thought we would clear things up a bit.

The disciplines are closely related but food science deals more with food at the molecular level.

A food scientist draws on chemistry and biology to study food and how best to grow it and process it so that it retains most of its nutrients. They conduct food research to determine how foods deteriorate – lose their molecular structure, grow colonies of bacteria and become unsafe.

Food scientists and food technologists work hand in hand designing new foods and their packaging.

As a food technologist, your focus would likely be oriented more toward food production and processing.

Working from the information provided to you by the food scientists, you may design food production processes that won’t compromise the flavour, texture or appearance of the food.

You may also conduct market surveys to determine if a new food appeals to the public before it is mass-produced.

Said surveys include opinions about the food packaging: if consumers find the container difficult to manage or the labelling unappealing, they would not be likely to buy it.

When this new food launches into production, you may be tasked with quality assurance – making sure the food meets health and safety standards, all while maintaining its desirable qualities.

You may also be tasked with finding ways to streamline production without sacrificing any of those factors.

If that sounds exciting, you should read our complete guide to food science technology!

A recent development in food technology is the rise of plant-based products
Become a food technologist and get involved with the recent rise of plant-based products as an alternative to meat. Source: Unsplash

Recent Developments in Food Technology

Plant-Based Meat

Plant-based meat has increasingly been making headlines in recent years. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat aim to create products that look, cook, and taste like real meat. But how do they do that?

Impossible Foods uses a genetically engineered strain of yeast to produce soy leghemoglobin, a key ingredient that makes its meat substitutes "bleed" and gives them a uniquely meaty flavour.

Beyond Meat on the other hand uses food extrusion technology which is a process of heating, cooling, and pressure to force plant proteins into a fibrous, meat-like texture that resembles muscle fibres. Instead of using genetic engineering to produce its products, the Beyond Meat burger uses beet juice to replicate the bleeding from a real burger.

But what if we could also create animal-based meat without having to kill animals? That's where cultured meat and 3D bio printing come in.

Cultured Meat

One of the most newsworthy developments in food tech is lab-grown meat, otherwise known as cultured meat, a form of cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture is the use of animal cells or microbes to grow animal products, such as meat or milk, in bioreactors. Cells can be taken from biopsies of live animals, meaning animals do not have to be slaughtered in order to produce these products.

Cellular agriculture gained prominence after Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the first cultured meat burger in 2013. Since then, cultured meats have been touted as a sustainable alternative to livestock farming, which is the leading cause of habitat destruction.

Global demand for meat will only increase over the coming decades, meaning more ecosystems will be bulldozed to accommodate the expanding market. This, as a result, will increase the risk of future pandemics, as biodiversity loss is associated with the emergence of new diseases. In addition, efforts to cut carbon emissions won't meet Paris targets if we don’t reduce our meat consumption.

Not only does cultivated meat reduce the impact of industrial livestock production on the climate crisis, it also provides cleaner, drug-free and cruelty-free meat.

Since 2013, there has been some progress. In 2020 in Singapore, Eat Just became the first cultured meat company to gain regulatory approval to sell its product 'chicken bites', nuggets of lab-grown chicken.

The approval could lead to a future when all meat is produced without the killing of livestock. In fact, a recent report form the global consultancy AT Kearney predicted that most meat in 2040 would not come from dead animals.

Cultivating meat in bioreactors also means there's no risk of bacterial contamination from animal waste and prevents the overuse of antibiotics and hormones in animals.

Some have expressed concerns about the energy consumption of these bioreactors. The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. However once scaled up, manufacturers say they will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.

Challenges remain though, particularly in regards to the reaction of consumers. Cultured meat involves a high level of processing which is certainly not likely to appeal to everyone.

3D Bioprinting

In a similar vein, 3D bioprinting is another recent development in food technology. 3D bioprinting is a form of additive manufacturing that uses cells and other biocompatible materials as “inks”, also known as bioinks, to print living structures layer-by-layer which mimic the behaviour of natural living systems.

At the start of 2021, the world's first 3D bioprinted and cultivated ribeye steak was made without genetic engineering. It was created by Aleph Farms Ltd. and the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. Aleph Farms is now waiting for regulatory approval.

Then in August, Japanese scientists successfully 3-D printed a cut of Wagyu beef complete with the texture and marbling of the famous Japanese meat.

But 3D bioprinting can also be used to create plant-based alternatives to meat. Barcelona-based startup Novameat is using its 3D printing technology to manufacture vegetarian "steaks" that it hopes will reach the mass market next year.

The Need for Food Technologists is Growing

In this article, we’ve mentioned some of the very pressing concerns that have a direct impact on the food industry such as climate change/environmental concerns, food safety and the growing number of mouths to feed.

Right now, our production of food is delicately balanced against the earth’s ability to produce enough to feed everyone… and the food industry is fast falling behind on meeting the demand for safe and nutritious food for all.

More food being produced faster leaves the door open to greater risks of contamination.

Leaving aside genetically modified organisms – GMOs, as they are commonly known, food technologists are in demand everywhere from the livestock pens and growing fields to the government agencies that provide our food growers oversight and guidance.

In case you’re wondering, GMOs are the purview of scientists specialising in food microbiology.

Naturally, if that is where your interest lies, that is the area of study that you should pursue but, if you are keen to get your boots on the ground, to start working as soon as possible, there is nothing wrong with getting your undergraduate degree and training as a food technologist.

A Bachelor’s Degree will qualify you to work in a food manufacturing plant in several capacities, the aforementioned food safety and quality being just one of them.

You may also enjoy working in the food analysis department, improving on the foods being processed.

You could also work in Research and Development, not just in food and nutrition but in equipment design and even the layout of the processing plant.

To make a long dissertation succinct: as a food technologist, there is a field of opportunity waiting for you!

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.